Graduation losses create opportunities for pass catchers
EUGENE Ñ The high-profile competition at Oregon is Jason Fife versus Kellen Clemens at quarterback, but another battle could have even more to do with the Ducks' quest to get better on offense.
Who will catch passes?
With receivers Keenan Howry and Jason Willis graduated, and tight end George Wrighster leaving early for the NFL, a void has been created in an attack that has always stressed a balance of pass and run.
Sure, the speedy Samie Parker returns at one receiver spot, but he was inconsistent and dropped too many balls last year. Playing alongside two seniors, he finished with 49 catches for 724 yards and eight touchdowns. Can he be a steady, dependable receiver as the main man or will he simply be the home-run threat?
Which receiver starts on the other side is anybody's guess. The coaches probably will reserve judgment until summer camp, when they expect freshman James Finley and junior college transfer Marcus Maxwell to arrive.
The Ducks do know some things about the other receiver candidates as they get ready for Saturday's 1 p.m. spring game at Autzen Stadium.
Sophomore Demetrius Williams, who had seven catches for 73 yards last season, could wind up as the possession receiver. The 6-foot-1, 176-pound Williams says, 'I'm not a fast guy, and I'm not a big guy; I'm not a guy who runs past eight defensive backs, or runs over linebackers, but I make sure I catch the ball.'
Health issues dog recruit
Junior Kevin Allen, a prime recruit in 2000, seems to have the tools to be an impact player, if he can just stay healthy. He played in all 12 games as a freshman, making seven catches for 161 yards, but he regressed last season. Troubled by injuries, he played in only eight games and made three catches for 54 yards.
'Sprained MCL (medial collateral ligament), pulled groin, pulled hamstring. Hamstring got me twice,' says Allen, detailing his maladies. 'Probably another one I'm forgetting. I'm pretty healthy now.'
When healthy, the 6-1, 200-pound Allen can be part Mack truck, part Porsche. 'I like to run through tackles, get across the middle and use my muscle,' he says.
Kellen Taylor could be the great unknown. The junior arrived at Oregon late for camp last summer after finishing some academic work at the City College of San Francisco. He then redshirted to focus on learning the system and how to pass classes. After a rough fall term Ñ he didn't want to specifically address the grades Ñ Taylor says he pulled a 3.4 GPA for winter term.
The 6-0, 180 Taylor caught 41 passes for 620 yards at San Francisco, California's top JC team in 2001. He sees himself as the perfect complement to the Ducks' other receivers.
'I can't outrun Samie,' Taylor says. 'I bring toughness. I'm kind of a possession receiver, but I've got the speed to run away from guys. I bring a different attitude to our offense, pretty much a no-nonsense type of game.
'I'll do whatever it takes to win. If they want me to block all game, I'll block. If they want me to catch balls across the middle, I'll do that. If they want me to go deep, I'll do that.'
Parker leads the pack
Coach Mike Bellotti and his assistants recruited receivers intensely, and they hope that the 6-3 Maxwell and Finley, the ballyhooed prep who couldn't get into Oregon State academically last season, can enter the mix right away.
The Ducks also hoped that prep recruit Jordan Carey could contend for playing time at receiver, as well as vie for punt return duties, but he suffered an ankle sprain early in spring drills.
Walk-on Alex Mercier also has made strides in spring ball.
Unquestionably, the leader of the pass-catching unit is Parker, who has missed some spring practices while participating for the UO track team. He's one of the Pacific-10 Conference's fastest receivers, but he often got ahead of himself last season and dropped the ball.
'He's so fast, once he gets his hands on the ball, it's electricity,' Taylor says. 'He wants to grab and catch and go.'
Drops are the scourge of receivers, Williams says. 'It's not a matter of hearing footsteps or being scared to take a hit,' he says. 'We're trying to get the ball and run, make something happen. It's a lack of focus.'
Bellotti and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have something to prove this season. Namely, that last year's woes ÑÊthe Ducks couldn't manage second-half touchdowns in Pac-10 play and continually stagnated offensively ÑÊwere a fluke.
But the Ducks potentially could really struggle offensively this season, at least early in the season, with Clemens possibly starting his first games, a new tailback (most likely Chris Vincent or Terrence Whitehead), a new tight end (probably Tim Day) and new receivers, other than Parker. The one big strength is an experienced offensive line.
Williams and Taylor say there shouldn't be any worries about the new receivers, though.
'They don't know us, yet,' Taylor says. ' 'Yet' ÑÊthat's the key word.'