Conversations about great cornerback tandems in the last two decades at Oregon usually start with Alex Molden and Kenny Wheaton in 1994, and end with Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith in 2001. Go ahead and add another duo to the discussion. This year's starting twosome of Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond III, each just a sophomore, is earning itself a place among Oregon's great cornerback crews. Through four games this season, neither has allowed a passing touchdown. Opposing wide receivers have just two touchdown receptions against the No. 11 Ducks this fall, both against safeties. Only one was by the great receiver combination at Michigan that included Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Until this week, that was the best receiving corps Oregon has faced this season. That will change at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, when the Ducks (4-0) are visited by No. 6 California (4-0) and its trio of DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan.
"They pose a lot of challenges with their speed and ability to stretch the field," Byrd said. "It'll be a test, but I think we're up for it." They've been game for everything else thrown at them the past two years. Byrd joined Thurmond in the starting lineup for the third game last fall, and they're on track to start their 15th game together against the Bears. They go about their jobs in different ways. Byrd, at 6-foot and 208 pounds, is the more physical of the two, favoring press coverage so he can chuck his man at the line and bump him off his route. Thurmond, 6-foot and 185 pounds, is smaller and faster, preferring to play off his man and use his closing speed to make up open space. "They both kind of know their strengths and weaknesses and play to them," UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "And they're both real confident. Confident guys that have short-term memories can be great corners." Added UO coach Mike Bellotti: "They look different on the field, but the results are very similar. ... I think they have the abilities to give them a chance to go to the next level.
"What you look for in a corner is a person that can cover, a person that understands where the ball is, a person who will make a tackle and a person that has the confidence to play regardless of what happened on the last play. Those guys have that." For both Byrd and Thurmond, their devotion to the mental side of the game sets them apart in the eyes of coaches. Bellotti, Aliotti and UO defensive backs coach John Neal all spoke of intelligence, pride, competitiveness and toughness when describing their cornerbacks.
And, Neal said, "They have that little magic about whatever it is that makes them a good football player or good athlete on the field. They have all the ingredients." What neither has is the kind of bravado typical of players in their position, like Bauman. Thurmond is a bit more outgoing than Byrd, but neither wastes much energy talking trash or clowning with teammates. Rather, they spend time analyzing film together, and trading tips on opposing receivers. Byrd sticks to the left side of the field and Thurmond to the right against a typical offensive formation, so they're switching among different receivers throughout most games.
"We're pretty similar, like to joke around and have fun," Thurmond said. "We know that, when it's time to work, we're both ready to go to work. But when you're not having fun, it takes away from the game." Thurmond pointed out that "fun" in their terms involves competition. In particular, they seem to relish physical contact more than most corners.
Through four games, Thurmond is third on the team with 33 tackles, and Byrd is sixth with 19. They've also combined for three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. "A lot of corners don't like to get their hands dirty," Thurmond said. "We like to be like safeties and go make tackles. We love it." They should have ample chances to test those tackling abilities this week. Besides a stable of talented wideouts, the Bears boast the Pac-10's second-leading rusher, Justin Forsett. Byrd and Thurmond will surely be asked to help stop runs to the outside. And the Ducks need to decide whether they can afford to drop their safeties into run coverage, and leave their cornerbacks alone on the outside against the pass.
Of the two, Thurmond seems to have drawn more attention from opposing offenses this fall. By playing off receivers, he has been susceptible to underneath routes, though he has responded with eight pass breakups and an interception. His per-game average of 2.25 passes defended is third in the nation. Neal doesn't think the opposition had necessarily been picking on Thurmond over Byrd so far this season. And if that changes this week, he said, so be it. "Maybe Cal will go after one of them," Neal said. "We'll see. Let them come. We've got to accept the challenge, no matter which one gets the opportunity."