Heat is on for UOs tight end hopefuls

Five jockey for position that has taken their predecessors to NFL

EUGENE Ñ The numbers are there for all the Oregon wannabe tight ends to see.

Take away LaCorey Collins, a converted wide receiver, and all six Duck starters at tight end from 1990-2001 have played in the NFL. And George Wrighster, last year's starter, probably will be picked in the middle rounds of the NFL draft April 26-27.

Take away Collins' 1998 year Ñ he caught only 16 balls but holds the Oregon tight end record with an 18.4-yard average Ñ and UO tight ends have averaged 31 catches for 462 yards in the past 12 seasons.

Tim Day, Josh Rogers, Eddie Whitaker, Ryan Loftin and Nate LiaBraaten Ñ the top five on the depth chart this spring Ñ have big shoes to fill.

Day, a redshirt sophomore from Las Vegas, appears to be the front-runner. He played in 13 games last year, mostly as a blocker. Tailback Onterrio Smith paid him the ultimate compliment when he said the 6-4, 268-pound Day 'laid hat' as well as any tight end, whether blocking out of the backfield or on the line of scrimmage.

Now the Ducks will see whether Day can consistently catch the ball. He had three receptions for 18 yards and a touchdown in 2002; last Saturday, in Oregon's first spring scrimmage, he had three catches for 33 yards.

'I think I've got decent hands. They're never perfect,' Day says. 'Every tight end wants to touch the ball, but it comes down to blocking.'

The Ducks recruited Whitaker, a 6-4, 236-pound junior college transfer from Toluca Lake, Calif., to replace Wrighster, who opted to leave after his junior year. His strength? 'Catching the ball,' says Whitaker, who played in a run-oriented system at Los Angeles Valley Junior College and caught only eight balls last season. 'I wanted to be someplace where they focused on the tight ends.'

Rogers and Loftin, both seniors, have played the game of musical positions during their UO careers. 'Politics' is what Rogers calls it. The 6-3, 265-pound Rogers moved to tight end during the 2002 season, after stops at linebacker, defensive tackle and fullback. The 6-4, 244-pound Loftin moved from fullback, after starting his career at linebacker and taking two years off for his Mormon mission.

'I've got to be physical and show some athletic ability. I liked linebacker, but I'm happy with the move,' says Rogers, of Vacaville, Calif., maybe the best all-around athlete of the tight-end group.

Loftin played tight end in high school in Hughson, Calif. 'It's a better place for me,' he says. 'Blocking off the line of scrimmage is better for me.'

The fifth player in the bunch, LiaBraaten, actually caught an eight-yard TD pass last year from Kellen Clemens during mop-up time against Idaho. It was his only catch of the season. LiaBraaten, who is from Bend, is 6-4 and 245 pounds.