Oregon snaps on its helmets for spring football April 3. And by the end of the spring game May 1 at Autzen Stadium, the Ducks might have some answers to five important questions:
1. Who will be the No. 2 quarterback behind Kellen Clemens?
2. Who is best suited to take over for departed wide receiver Samie Parker? It won't be Kyle Weatherspoon, the No. 3 guy last year. He will miss spring ball and maybe next season after dislocating his shoulder three weeks ago.
3. How will the up-the-gut part of the UO defense jell, with two starters gone at defensive tackle, as well as the inside linebacker and free safety? The Ducks will have trouble matching last season's feat of 95.9 rushing yards allowed per regular-season game.
4. Who takes the lead in the dogfight for starting cornerback positions?
5. What will be the makeup of the linebacker corps?
Clemens, coming off arthroscopic knee surgery and his phenomenal 32-of-42 passing for 363 yards and three TDs in the Sun Bowl, will get some work in the spring. Coach Mike Bellotti sees 'great' things in Clemens' future, and the junior-to-be from Burns needs some reps to make progress.
But redshirt freshman Johnny DuRocher will be active, and Brady Leaf and newcomer Dennis Dixon need ample time so the coaches can evaluate who would be best under fire in the fall.
'It'll depend on how Kellen comes into camp,' Bellotti says. 'The sharper he is, the fewer reps he'll need to get.'
Backs come back
Tailback Terrence Whitehead, who rushed for 702 yards in the regular season, will practice after having ankle surgery to remove bone spurs. All four backs are returning, and prep Terrell Jackson will arrive in the fall.
Bellotti says stud sophomore-to-be Dante Rosario, who scored TDs in the Civil War and Sun Bowl, will see plenty of work at fullback and 'H-back,' the fullback-tight end hybrid. The Ducks want to increase his contributions, and they also will have the services of Jerome Johnson, a 258-pound fullback from Los Angeles in the spring. Johnson, who ran a 10.8-second 100 meters in high school, sat out last year to academically qualify.
At receiver, senior Keith Allen will return from anterior cruciate ligament surgery. Marcus Maxwell has not been cleared for contact after shoulder surgery, but he will do some drills. The Ducks have high hopes for redshirt freshman Garren Strong. Jordan Carey, who entered UO last spring, skipping his spring term of high school, 'unfortunately is a guy starting over,' Bellotti says, because of injuries throughout 2003.
Bellotti likes the tight end situation, where starter Tim Day returns and competition for No. 2 will be enhanced by Nate LiaBraaten's health.
On the line, only Dan Weaver departs, and Enoka Lucas steps in as the heir apparent at center, although the Ducks will look at Nick Steitz and Robin Knebel snapping the ball.
Easy go, easy come
Bellotti likes to say two starters return at defensive tackle in Haloti Ngata and Robby Valenzuela, even though two starters left in Igor Olshansky and Junior Siavii. Ngata will be returning from ACL surgery, and Valenzuela's playing time will increase from about 50 percent to '75 to 80 percent, at least,' the coach says.
Middle linebacker Jerry Matson returns, but the inside position vacated by Kevin Mitchell Ñ the key run-stopping position Ñ and the outside position vacated by David Martin are wide open. The front-runners seem to be Ramone Reed on the inside and Anthony Trucks on the outside.
In the secondary, will free safety J.D. Nelson be able to handle the run and pass as well as Keith Lewis did?
It appears Rodney Woods, a part-time starter at cornerback, will remain there and not play much free safety Ñ pending the development of others, including speedy redshirt freshman Ryan Gilliam. Bellotti eagerly waits to see how Gilliam performs at cornerback.
'Bird' ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash, hand-timed, tying Rashad Bauman's UO record for defensive backs. Marc Walker, a junior college transfer last year, enters the cornerback picture, as does Sam Hughes, who sat out last year with an injury. Justin Phinisee seems to be the only certainty at cornerback.
Ngata's spring time will be limited. The key line work will go to backups Matt Toeaina, Darius Sanders and Victor Filipe. 'Their development will make our defensive line good or great,' Bellotti says. É Bellotti says this about the other QBs: DuRocher Ñ 'A very good pocket presence; he has an ability to slide and dump the ball off. He needs to be more consistent with his passes, repetitively, and spinning the ball.' Leaf Ñ 'He's accurate. He needs to work on mobility Ñ foot skills, agility Ñ and his knowledge of the system.' Dixon Ñ 'I haven't seen him throw a ball yet. He has very good physical skills. It'll be about his repetitive accuracy and picking up the system.' É Bellotti says 10 of 30 incoming freshman could see action next fall Ñ at least one offensive lineman, maybe two receivers, one defensive lineman, one linebacker, one defensive back and one cornerback. It would be the most true freshmen to ever play under Bellotti. É Offensive lineman Shawn Perkins has changed his name to Shawn Flannaghan, taking his father's last name.