Oregon's defensive backfield gave up 35 touchdowns last year

EUGENE Ñ You can always count on Keith Lewis to speak his mind.

As the senior safety geared up for Oregon spring practice, he talked about how intense the offseason workouts have been and how much the defensive backfield must improve for the Ducks to get their swagger back.

'Everybody realizes, to be plain and simple, we sucked,' Lewis says of Oregon's defense, which gave up 35 touchdown passes and 28 points per game last season.

The Ducks open spring practice Saturday with questions all over the field: Who will win the quarterback duel between Jason Fife and Kellen Clemens? Who will emerge at tailback, tight end and wide receiver, opposite Samie Parker? Who will fill the vacancies at two linebacker positions and punter?

The answers won't come until late-summer camp opens, after the prep and junior college recruits are on hand. That's especially true with the biggest question of all: Who will play in the defensive backfield, and will the unit be better than it was last year?

Lewis, a two-year starter, is solidly ensconced at free safety, but Marley Tucker will face competition from Justin Phinisee and others at the rover position. Steven Moore and Aaron Gipson return as cornerback starters, but their jobs are certainly not secure, with coach Mike Bellotti and his staff dead-set on improving the pass coverage.

The Ducks signed JC defensive backs Rodney Woods and Marc Walker and recruited speedy Ryan Gilliam from Florida. All three will arrive for August practices and surely will fit into the cornerback picture, Bellotti says.

Bellotti says Woods, whose felony assault was reduced to misdemeanor, will 'absolutely' enroll in September. Woods stayed at Fresno City College this term to polish off academic requirements. 'I'm not worried at all about him,' Bellotti says.

True freshmen Kyle Weatherspoon, a wide receiver/defensive back, and A.J. Tuitele, a safety, also will compete for secondary playing time, although they will probably redshirt this season.

Gipson and cornerback Marques Binns, who has grown 2 inches and added pounds, have had four valuable months of offseason workouts after their dreadful, trial-by-fire freshman campaigns. More important, Lewis says, 'they are starting to realize how important (college football) is to us. Their mind-set is totally different.

'When they first got here, I don't think they were mentally prepared for how different this game is,' he says. 'I could see where they were coming from. Coming from high school and junior college to (Division I) college is such a different level Ñ the talent, the quickness, the game is faster.'

Bellotti hired a new defensive backs coach, John Neal, after Mike Gillhamer departed to become defensive coordinator at Louisville. Lewis says Neal has a more nurturing side to him, that he'll be hands-on and work well with defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. Gillhamer, he says, gave players too much 'freedom' and, with the inexperience last year, it backfired.

Lewis says Neal has different defensive schemes. The Ducks probably won't return solely to their nine-in-the-box, corners-on-an-island philosophy.

'We have to make some changes Ñ signals, personnel, everything Ñ because teams are getting comfortable and catching on to what we're doing,' Lewis says. 'They're picking up on things too easily.'

Notes: Lewis backed off plans to enter the NFL draft, preferring to stay, raise his stock and help the Ducks recover from a 7-6 season. 'Who wants to leave with a bitter taste in their mouth?' he says. É Early guesses on defensive captains: Lewis, linebacker Kevin Mitchell and defensive tackle Igor Olshansky.

The spring game will be at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, at Autzen Stadium.

Fife, fresh off his honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with his bride, Rebekah, says he will be a more assertive leader this season. 'As a team leader, I made the mistake of not being very vocal at times last year,' he says. 'If I'm going to be the quarterback of this team, I have to learn to do that role. There are times you have to rally the troops and get people going. I can't just be a silent, everybody-learn-from-Fife type.' É Fife says he has the 'upper hand' on Clemens. 'I'm a senior, I have the most experience. A lot of younger guys look to me for advice and how to do things fundamental-wise and how to read defenses,' he says.

Receiver Jordan Carey, days removed from Capital High in Olympia, Wash., says he'd be content playing special teams and getting a few plays from scrimmage as a true freshman. By the way, he's an exceptionally muscular athlete Ñ 5-11 1/2, 203 pounds. His buddy, quarterback Johnny DuRocher, says Carey has been showing off his well-toned physique walking around the dorms.

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