Pac-10 spring practice preview: Oregon

Oregon Ducks
2009: 10-3 (8-1)

If you weren’t aware of the turmoil surrounding the Oregon Ducks football program throughout the offseason, you probably aren’t a college football fan. Whether the controversy regarded star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, sensational tailback LaMichael James or former athletic director Mike Bellotti, the litany of offseason incidents didn’t reflect well on the university.

Spring practice at least gives head coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks an outlet to channel all of that negative energy into preparing for the 2010 season and another Pac-10 championship, which is exactly what the Ducks have been doing for the last week in Eugene, Ore.

The first order of business in camp? Finding a quarterback to replace Masoli, who was suspended for the 2010 season and is one of nine Ducks to run into trouble this offseason. Masoli, by the way, will remain in school and has been participating in spring drills.

Redshirt senior Nate Costa and redshirt sophomore Darron Thomas are currently splitting first-team reps in practice for the right to be under center for the opener, and both bring valuable assets to the offense. Kelly loves Costa’s football knowledge and his toughness, while Thomas’ height, speed and energetic nature excite the head coach. Costa’s decision-making and accuracy are notable, but Thomas has the ability to deliver the deep ball more consistently.

Kelly knows how to mold quarterbacks into dangerous signal-callers in his offense — former rising baseball pro Dennis Dixon emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender before Masoli — so the expectation is that both Costa and Thomas would be successful given the opportunity in the fall. The offense has excelled under Kelly’s direction in large part due to the running ability of both the quarterback and halfback, causing opposing defenses to be prone to matchup problems. Dixon and Jonathan Stewart laid the groundwork, while Masoli and James continued the tradition last season. Defenders were simply outmaneuvered in the open field.

Following three major knee surgeries, will Costa be dangerous enough as a runner to make the defense susceptible? If Thomas is under center, will his youthfulness be evident when the Ducks are forced into obvious passing situations?

There is talent throughout the offense, and an argument can be made that the quarterback doesn’t have to be of primary focus. That may be true in terms of statistics, but the signal-caller — in this spread offense specifically — must be the conductor and the point guard, knowing when to dish the rock to the right skill player at the right time.

With his off-the-field problems hopefully behind (although he will sit out the Ducks’ Sept. 4 home opener against New Mexico), James returns to the backfield for his sophomore season after a dazzling debut in ’09. After LeGarrette Blount’s suspension sent panic through Eugene, James picked up the slack and rushed for 1,546 yards on 230 carries for a 6.7 yards per carry average and added 14 scores to make the Ducks’ offense deadly and become the Pac-10’s all-time freshman rushing leader. Fellow sophomore Kenjon Barner is equally dangerous, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and amassing 366 yards on only 61 carries.

All three starting wideouts return — Jeff Maehl, D.J. Davis and Lavasier Tuinei, who combined for 100 receptions, 1,146 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Maehl is the headliner of the group, and his production should increase even more with the departure of tight end Ed Dickson, which is a huge loss — especially with a new signal-caller under center. The departure of Dickson is an underrated storyline this spring.

In terms of replacing Dickson, junior-college transfer Brandon Williams has looked impressive in the first week-plus of camp, displaying great athleticism and soft hands. Williams had 56 catches for 908 yards and seven scores at Joliet Junior College. Junior David Paulson is listed as the top tight end on the depth chart, but Williams has been in with the first team in two-tight-end sets with senior Malachi Lewis nursing a hamstring injury. Williams is certainly taking advantage of the opportunity.

Returning the entire starting offensive line, which was considered a question mark entering ’09, will surely make Costa or Thomas much more comfortable in making the transition to starter. Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood did a remarkable job of molding an inexperienced unit into a team strength, as the Ducks finished sixth in the nation in rushing offense.

Losing T.J. Ward and Walter Thurmond III would hurt any defense, but the Ducks experienced life without Ward last year when he missed five games. Eddie Pleasant will replace him, and there isn’t expected to be serious drop-off in play. Returning at the other safety spot is John Boyett, who led the Ducks in tackles as a freshman with 90. Cornerbacks Cliff Harris and Talmadge Jackson — who had four picks in ’09 but is recovering from a shoulder injury — also return, as well as rovers Javes Lewis and Marvin Johnson. Harris could develop into a lockdown corner in the fall.

Depth also arrived in the form of early enrollees Dior Mathis, James Scales and Terrance Mitchell. The Ducks will have plenty of bodies to try to improve a pass defense that led the conference in yards allowed per pass at 5.9. The good news is that the inexperienced defenders thrown into the fire last year are more seasoned this spring.

Depth also is apparent in the talented linebacker corps despite multiple changes in personnel. Brandon Hanna was moved to the defensive line to act as an edge rusher; speedy Pleasant was moved to safety; Kiko Alonso was famously suspended; and athletic Josh Kaddu will be limited this spring as he recovers from a foot injury.

But Ducks fans have no need to worry, as seniors Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger will man the middle and weakside, respectively. The smart, physical anchors of the defense are rarely out of position. At the “Sam” ‘backer spot, athletic Boseko Lokombo will battle former junior-college transfer Bryson Littlejohn for time.

The main concern on defense comes on the line, where the Ducks lose starters Will Tukuafu and Blake Ferras. It’s easy to forget that the line was a strength last year, despite its disastrous performance to end the season against Ohio State. Tukuafu was a second-team all-conference player and a leader for the entire defense. Junior end Terrell Turner will get the first shot at replacing him and playing opposite Kenny Rowe, who led the league with 11 1/2 sacks — including three in the Rose Bowl. Brandon Bair, an honorable mention conference honoree last season, started 13 games at tackle and recorded 8 1/2 tackles for loss. The spot next to him is open, with senior Zac Clark in competition with a group of underclassmen.

Oregon was a top-five team and a national title contender with Masoli leading the offense. With him sidelined for 2010, do the Ducks take a step back? Sitting here in early April, the answer is yes — but that doesn’t mean that Costa or Thomas can’t steer the Ducks to the Rose Bowl once again and even compete for the BCS title.

Perhaps the tempered expectations for the team following the offseason distractions can actually work to the Ducks’ advantage. After all, Kelly probably wasn’t comfortable with the high praise heaped upon his team anyway.

The one certainty with Oregon football is that on May 1 when the annual spri ng game is held at Autzen Stadium, Kelly’s concerns will be on the Ducks’ on-the-field issues — rather than squarely on the distractions that plagued the program throughout the offseason.

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