Ducks may have all the answers this year
Bellotti needs to find a way to inspire and re-motivate his squad
EUGENE In the final seven games last year, Oregon went from unbeaten, nationally respected Pac-10 Conference heavyweight to losing all sense of self. The offense sputtered, team unity frayed and defense collapsed, and the season ended bitterly in the Seattle Bowl.
On Wednesday, however, all should be forgotten. A new day dawns with the start of training camp, as the Ducks prepare for the Aug. 30 opener at Mississippi State.
Coach Mike Bellotti faces maybe his toughest coaching job: taking the remains of an underachieving 7-6 team and making his players believe again.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti will try to plug the holes on defense, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will try to help the offense rediscover its swagger.
Entering training camp, these five primary questions face the Ducks:
Q: Will they be motivated, inspired and committed?
Bellotti questioned his players last year for their lack of motivation and commitment, saying they lived off their laurels after the Fiesta Bowl victory and No. 2 ranking. No true leader emerged to replace Joey Harrington, a critical missing piece.
Offseason workouts have gone well, players say, with quarterbacks Jason Fife and Kellen Clemens involved and defensive tackle Igor Olshansky among those solidifying leadership roles. The offensive linemen have been maniacs in the weight room.
And the Ducks return for 2003 with a familiar label.
'It's kind of nice being underdogs again,' offensive guard Joey Forster says. 'It's where we like to be as a team.
'I don't know how (2002) will affect us. We plan to build off what we didn't do, rather than what we did do.'
Q: Who has the skills among the skill-position players?
Unquestionably, the strength of the offense will be the line, with eight returning players, including full- or part-time starters Forster, Mike Delagrange, Adam Snyder, Nick Steitz and Dan Weaver.
Beyond the bulk, only fleet-footed receiver Samie Parker, fullback Matt Floberg and Fife have ample experience. Parker looked sensational in spring ball and had an outstanding track and field season, making the NCAA finals in the 100-meter dash. Returning receivers Keith Allen, physical with potential, and string bean Demetrius Williams have limited experience; Allen has been injury prone.
Depth will be an issue at receiver, because James Finley failed to qualify for school and coaches have academic concerns about Kellen Taylor. Three freshman, including Jordan Carey, and junior college transfer Marcus Maxwell, may get to play right away.
Chris Vincent had the best spring among the running back hopefuls, with Terrence Whitehead and Ryan Shaw pushing him, and Kenny Washington running fourth. Can Vincent, the best all-around back, be a difference maker?
Oregon's emphasis on using the tight end could make or break Tim Day, a physical blocker with purportedly soft hands.
Then you have the quarterback question Fife or Clemens? which Bellotti probably won't answer till the week of the Mississippi State game.
Q: Can Clemens hold off Fife?
Fife started all 13 games last year and led the Ducks to their 6-0 start. He led comebacks against Fresno State and UCLA and ranked among the nation's best in quarterback ratings for more than half the season. But Clemens played most of the Seattle Bowl and hasn't looked back. He outperformed Fife in the spring and enters camp as the QB who should get the most reps with the first unit.
Weaver says players just want the best QB out there.
'It's not coming down to we're more confident with one guy or the other,' Weaver says. 'We want a guy who can make plays. Whoever does it É we'll back either one. I don't see one totally separating from the other.'
Another question: Which player does Ludwig, who calls the plays, prefer to run the offense?
Q: Will the defensive holes get filled?
The Ducks return one of the Pac-10's surest tacklers in Kevin Mitchell, but he will have two new linebackers next to him. They could be Jerry Matson and David Martin. Newcomer Marcus Miller will be a factor, too.
The Ducks had to rely on Garret Graham, a converted inside backer, to play on the outside last year; Martin eventually replaced him. The outside linebacker spots, one manned by Wesly Mallard on the Fiesta Bowl team, are important because good players there can handle tight ends and big receivers freeing up the safeties to help the cornerbacks and blitz.
The Ducks didn't blitz as much last year, because the linebackers had to pay too much attention to pass defense. Oregon should be much better on the defensive line this season. Haloti Ngata and Olshansky will plug the middle. Olshansky will move outside at times because of tackle Junior Siavii's improvement and because Quinn Dorsey will miss early games (suspension) and Chris Solomona and Devan Long enter the season fairly green.
The front seven will be solid against the run, which should allow for more diversification in the secondary.
Q: Ah, the secondary É how about the competition?
There will be intense competition at cornerback, with newcomers Ryan Gilliam, Rodney Woods and Marc Walker challenging incumbents Steven Moore, Marques Binns and Aaron Gipson.
The Ducks' lack of depth last year forced them to play true freshmen Binns and Gipson. They supposedly have more depth in place this year.
They will need to limit the big plays, says safety Marley Tucker, who is likely to start next to all-league Keith Lewis.
'We would hold teams and hold teams and then give up a big play on third-and-20,' Tucker says of last season. 'Coach (John) Neal has instilled in us the need to finish plays, to have game tempo, which we didn't have as a DB group.
'We're going to switch some schemes, disguise things a little more. We're going to be fine.'