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• Ducks' array of '04 starters warrants Bellotti's optimism

The bad thing for the Oregon Ducks is that linebacker Kevin Mitchell, free safety Keith Lewis and wide receiver Samie Parker have concluded their college careers. They will be missed more than any of the other departing seniors.

The good thing is that coach Mike Bellotti can look at the other 21 starting positions and feel comfortable about what Oregon will put on the field in 2004. If the Ducks do not contend for second in the Pacific-10 Conference next year, or the year after Ñ second behind USC, of course Ñ it won't be for lack of having starters and backups.

'It's a case for optimism,' says Bellotti, whose Ducks lost 31-30 to Minnesota in the Sun Bowl to finish 8-5.

The Ducks could reap the rewards of last season's turbulent ride: the 4-0 start, with a win over Michigan; the 1-4 middle, with three blowouts; the 3-0 regular--season finish against bowl-bound teams; and the bittersweet end after playing well and losing to Minnesota.

While injuries depleted the ranks, many young players stepped into prime time. Quarterback Kellen Clemens, tailback Terrence Whitehead, receiver Demetrius Williams, tight end Tim Day, defensive end Devan Long and cornerback Justin Phinisee Ñall sophomores Ñwere mainstays. Punter Paul Martinez, fullback Dante Rosario, receiver Kyle Weatherspoon and tight end Dan Kause Ñall true freshmen Ñplayed key roles.

In all, only three starting positions on offense and five on defense will be left open. Here's a look.

Offense

With three-year center Dan Weaver leaving, Bellotti says Enoka Lucas will compete to start, as could tackle Robin Knebel and a recruit.

The loss of Parker leaves one receiver position open, and the Ducks hope that Keith Allen returns healthy from knee surgery to take over.

But Allen will have plenty of competition, starting with Weatherspoon, the No. 3 receiver for the second half of the year until he missed the bowl game because of a hamstring injury. The list of other wannabe starters also includes Jordan Carey, Marcus Maxwell, Brian Paysinger and Garren Strong, a 6-3 redshirt and the most ballyhooed young receiver.

At fullback, Matt Floberg started most of the games this year, but the Ducks have high hopes for the athletic, 6-4 Rosario, who scored a touchdown in the Sun Bowl. Bellotti says his talents demand that the Ducks factor the fullback more into their game plans.

Four offensive line starters return, not including Ian Reynoso and Shawn Perkins, who each started games this year. Plus, the Ducks have verbal commitments from five prep offensive linemen and might get one more. An offseason goal will be for the 319-pound Knebel and 345-pound Mike DeLaGrange to lose some weight, head trainer Kevin Steil says. Knebel had back pain all year, and DeLaGrange battled three injuries.

All four tailbacks return, but Bellotti and his coaches have made finding a back with explosive speed the No. 1 priority in recruiting. As of Monday, two of the four backs on their wish list have verbally committed to other schools Ñ Marshawn Lynch of Oakland, Calif., to California and J.T. Diederichs of Seattle to Washington State Ñ but Oregon would be plenty happy with either Arian Foster of San Diego or Terrell Jackson of Corona, Calif.

'We all want the home run threat,' Bellotti says.

Not to take away from Whitehead's year, which included 737 yards rushing and 28 pass receptions. And maybe Chris Vincent finally lives up to hype?

Demetrius Williams burst onto the scene after Allen's injury, catching 51 passes for 935 yards and eight TDs.

With Day and Kause back, and Nate LiaBraaten healthy after breaking his ankle this season, the Ducks should get more Ñif not their typical Ñ production from the tight ends.

Then you have Clemens, arguably the top-performing sophomore QB in UO history. He was 182 of 304 passing (60 percent) for 2,400 yards and 18 TDs Ñ more than any other Duck sophomore, including Dan Fouts.

Clemens was 32 of 42 for 363 yards in the Sun Bowl.

'This should be just another step in his maturation,' offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig says. 'I look forward to two more years with him.'

Defense

This year's line was 'the best defensive line in the history of Oregon, no doubt,' says Devan Long, who had 11.5 sacks.

If Igor Olshansky decides to leave for the NFL, the Ducks will have three holes up front. One will be filled by Haloti Ngata, whose season ended in the first half of the opener at Mississippi State. Also gone will be Junior Siavii, who played stellar at tackle, and Quinn Dorsey, who started nearly every game after his five-game suspension.

Without Olshansky, the line could go from potentially great to average; it would be Ngata and Robby Valenzuela at tackle and Long and Chris Solomona at end.

'I don't think (the line) ever quite came to the levels people expected,' Bellotti says. 'We're always on the fringe of being a great defensive line. We need the maturation of another end É and maybe it could be one of the best in the nation.'

Jerry Matson returns at inside linebacker, and Anthony Trucks started on the outside, with David Martin suspended. Then Martin returned, while Trucks had shoulder surgery.

Mitchell's absence will be the biggest void. Bellotti says Trucks, Ramond White and Justin Andrews could play there, and the Ducks will work in Marcus Miller and Rob Hamilton somewhere.

'We need to create positive, aggressive and competitive depth at linebacker, which we haven't had in a couple years,' Bellotti says.

With Lewis gone, J.D. Nelson and maybe Rodney Woods could contend at free safety alongside rover Marley Tucker.

The cornerback positions will be stacked with experienced players. Two-year starter Steven Moore will try to earn one more year of eligibility Ñ as a partial NCAA qualifier, he needs to graduate before next fall term to earn one more year of eligibility. Moore and Phinisee would return as starters from the Sun Bowl game. Woods, Aaron Gipson and Marques Binns also made starts, and Charles Favorth played nickel back in the Sun Bowl.

Notes

With kicker Jared Siegel and punter Martinez back, the Ducks should not drop off in special teams, although 'we need to punt the ball better,' Bellotti says. 'And I think our coverage on special teams needs to improve Ñ punting and kickoffs.'

The loss to Minnesota, he says, 'is the type of loss that will be somewhat positive motivation.' The Ducks slowed the Gophers' running game a bit, and Clemens had a great day. If Bellotti hadn't called two timeouts, which helped Minnesota set up its winning field goal, who knows what would have happened?

The Ducks play 11 consecutive weeks next year Ñ no bye Ñ but the schedule will be markedly easier, with nonleague games against Indiana, Nevada and Idaho to start. The first four Pac-10 games are against Arizona State, Washington State, Arizona and Stanford, with the ASU and Arizona games at home. Optimistically, the Ducks could be 7-0 heading into their Oct. 30 home game against Washington. Again, USC is not on the schedule.

Bellotti, on Olshansky: 'It's not in his best interest' to skip his senior season.

Spring practices will start April 3, with the spring game tentatively set for May 1.

Bellotti says he doesn't anticipate staff changes, but 'you never say never.' He complimented defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and offensive coordinator Ludwig for helping right the Ducks, which indicates he will keep them. 'I think our coordinators are among the best in the nation,' he says.

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .