Costa leads Oregon into summer workouts

Oregon began its offseason conditioning workouts Monday with perhaps the most discussed quarterback competition in the nation following the suspension and subsequent dismissal of star dual-threat signal-caller Jeremiah Masoli. Senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas have roughly two months to impress Chip Kelly before the head coach decides who will start the season opener Sept. 4 at home against New Mexico.

If neither quarterback failed to realize the immediacy of the situation, he merely has to look at the clock in the locker room that is counting down the time to the opener against the Lobos.

For the first time since the spring game, the Ducks were together as a team to run plays on their own and go through drills with strength coach Jim Radcliffe. The incoming freshmen who enrolled for summer classes joined the group Tuesday.

As Rob Moseley of the Register Guard wrote in his article Tuesday, Costa was the first player behind Radcliffe when the group ran back to the practice fields after drills, and he was the first guy off the line for the team’s change-of-direction drills. Moseley noted on his Twitter account Monday night that Costa was “consistently at the front of the pack leading guys through drills.”

As long as he doesn’t stumble and get thoroughly outplayed when fall camp begins in early August, Costa will likely be the starting signal-caller for the Ducks when the 2010 season kicks off.

The 6-1, 215-pounder certainly has the talent to be an effective Pac-10 quarterback. While not the running threat that Masoli was out of the backfield, Costa was originally supposed to be the stud quarterback leading Kelly's spread-option offense after Dennis Dixon moved onto the NFL after the 2007 season. But he suffered major injuries to both knees, opening the door for Masoli. He was healthy last year, however, and led the Ducks to a win over UCLA after coming in for an injured Masoli. He knows the offense and will provide a veteran presence for a team that endured so many distractions this past offseason.

Thomas is a dynamic athlete who made a splash as a true freshman in an impressive performance off the bench against Boise State in 2008, passing for 215 yards and three touchdowns and nearly rallying the Ducks back from a 24-point fourth-quarter deficit. The 6-3, 205-pounder redshirted in 2009, so he’s still inexperienced. However, he’s a dynamic athlete who certainly looks like he could be a fantastic dual-threat quarterback in Eugene.

But will he have to wait until 2011 to get his chance to become the leader of the Ducks’ offense?

Even if Costa does ultimately win the job, given his injury history, Kelly and the offensive staff will have Thomas ready to step in — much like the Boise game in ’08. This time, however, Thomas may be able to stick in the lineup.

Whoever lines up under center will have explosive running back LaMichael James as his partner-in-crime, as the 5-9 sophomore sparkplug rushed for 1,546 yards and 14 scores in ’09. Kenjon Barner is more than capable as a backup, and he’ll see the bulk of the carries in the opening week as James serves his one-game suspension for an offseason legal incident.

Trouble could be brewing at wide receiver, however, as the team received the news last week that junior JC transfer Tyrece Gaines and redshirt freshman Diante Jackson were declared academically ineligible for 2010 and are not expected to remain in Eugene. Both were highly touted recruits who didn't play last year but were expected to be a big part of the rotation this fall. The Ducks do return the trio of Jeff Maehl, D.J. Davis and Lavasier Tuinei, who combined for 100 catches, 1,146 yards and eight scores in ’09. But losing tight end Ed Dickson may prompt the Ducks to look to their receivers for even more production this year. With Jamere Holland being kicked off the team this spring, the unit will need some young players to step up and help ease the loss of all thee wideouts.

If Oregon finds itself sputtering on offense early in the season with a new signal-caller, having to rely on one of the fastest defenses in the Pac-10 isn’t such a bad thing. Eight starters return to a unit that ranked 35th nationally (336.3 ypg) in ’09.

But the Ducks’ fortunes in their quest to hold off USC and others for another Pac-10 championship rest on the shoulders of who will be under center. Both Costa and Thomas bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the table — all of which will be on full display this fall.

For now, however, the team will prepare under the hot Oregon summer sun, with the senior Costa leading the way.

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