- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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EUGENE, Ore. -- If the Pac-12 is a quarterback league this season, then it must also be regarded -- at least a bit -- as a league for opportunistic cornerbacks. Given the depth of talent at quarterback, there will be plenty of chances for cornerbacks to make big plays against bigger names.
And that idea is exciting a few Oregon Ducks defensive backs.
"I'm ready to play against all the best people," cornerback Dior Mathis said.
And yes, every college football player says that, but not every one actually gets to play against the best.
The Pac-12 cornerbacks, however, do.
With 10 returning starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12, cornerbacks are going to be tested by experienced, talented signal-callers.
Last season the Pac-12 passed more frequently than any other Power Five conference. On average, each Pac-12 quarterback attempted 386 passes through the season. That works to be just a bit more than 32 passes per game. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday's numbers do skew the average a bit. But if even if we exclude Halliday, the average Pac-12 signal-caller still threw about 30 passes.
Compared across the other four power conferences, that's quite the jump. The Big Ten led the rest of the power conferences with each quarterback averaging 309 passes through the season.
That means that per game, Pac-12 defensive backs will get about 11 more chances at a pass than a Big 12 defensive back. It works out to be nine more opportunities than DBs in the SEC and ACC and about six more chances for Big Ten DBs.
But Oregon isn't getting cocky just because there are more opportunities. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu knows that all 10 of those returning starters have gotten better than they were last season when he collected three interceptions and six pass break ups.
"Playing in the Pac-12 you pretty much know you're going to play against some pretty good quarterbacks," Ekpre-Olomu said. "But at the same time, you play against the same guys for three years. Just like they improve, we improve."
But the one advantage that Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis have over other cornerbacks, across the conference and country, is that they face Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota every single day in practice.
There might not be better practice for facing a Halliday or Sean Mannion or Taylor Kelly or Kevin Hogan, than going against Mariota.
"Going against him every day and seeing how he progresses and seeing his accuracy when he throws to receivers, going against him, it's cool," Mathis said of Mariota. "You get the best quarterback in the country, in my opinion. [We're] going against him every single day. It's doing nothing but making us better."
"Going against Marcus you have to be smart and you have to be on your toes really," Ekpre-Olomu added. "To get a ball thrown at you, especially playing against somebody like that, you have to outsmart the quarterback."
And if Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis can find a way to outsmart Mariota, the Duck defense might be taking a huge step forward when it plays teams with quarterbacks-not-named Mariota.