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Ducks hit neutral, await their day in the Sun

Health and fitness are tops on the agenda as UO waits for a bowl foe

Oregon gets back to practice this week, with nothing fancy planned Ñ 'generic,' coach Mike Bellotti calls it Ñ as the Ducks await word on their bowl game.

It'll be Oregon's offense against Oregon's defense this week and probably next week, too. More coaches will be on the road recruiting than staying in Eugene coaching, including Bellotti.

The goal: Maintain fitness, get players healthy and avoid injuries.

'Nobody can get hurt anymore,' Bellotti says. 'We don't have any margin for error.'

By the bowl game, likely to be the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against Minnesota, the Ducks could have healthy backups again at receiver, tight end, linebacker and defensive back. Many others also could be playing without the hindrance of pain.

The only starters out virtually all year have been offensive guard Joey Forster, who hurt a knee in the preseason, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who blew out a knee in the season opener at Mississippi State. Keith Allen had been tabbed as starting wide receiver, although Demetrius Williams has played admirably as the starter.

Entering bowl practices, the UO offense and defense stack up this way:

Offense

Kellen Clemens' performance in the final three games, all wins, solidified his starting spot at quarterback. One would guess that Jason Fife will be given some series to run in the bowl game as part of the game plan and to give the senior his time in the Sun with NFL scouts watching.

At tailback, Terrence Whitehead clearly has the starting job, although Kenny Washington has impressed coaches with his running on kick returns. Physical freshman Dante Rosario emerged as the starter at fullback, where he provides much more of an offensive threat than Matt Floberg.

Tight end Tim Day, battling a bad shoulder, got somewhat healthy near the end of the season; Nate LiaBraaten (ankle) could be back for the bowl.

Williams and Samie Parker played in spite of injuries more than the Duck coaches would have liked. Kellen Taylor's dismissal hurt, too. Kyle Weatherspoon developed into the No. 3 receiver, and either fellow freshman Jordan Carey or Marcus Maxwell will be available for the bowl game. If Carey can play, Maxwell could have shoulder surgery.

The offensive front of left tackle Robin Knebel, left guard Nick Steitz, center Dan Weaver, right guard Adam Snyder and right tackle Mike De La Grange played as well as any combination had all year against Oregon State. The Ducks could finally go with the five most experienced guys, rather than be forced to start youngsters Ian Reynoso and Shawn Perkins, who saw ample time this year with De La Grange hurt (shoulder) and Knebel slowed (back).

Defense

Sure, the Ducks missed Ngata, but nobody else on the defensive line missed time because of injury. End Quinn Dorsey sat out the first five games because of a suspension.

The durability of the line anchored the defense. Injuries and Ramone Reed's family tragedy (his mother's death) depleted the linebacker ranks, and there was shuffling among the defensive backs all season.

With Dorsey and Devan Long playing well on the outside, the Ducks can go with Junior Siavii and Igor Olshansky as the primary tackles; Olshansky played some end while Dorsey was out.

At linebacker, the starters Ñ Kevin Mitchell, Jerry Matson and David Martin Ñ stayed the same after Martin's return from suspension in the third game. Injuries thinned the ranks, with two second-string players sidelined for the season. But Reed returned after his personal leave to add some depth, and Scott Vossmeyer and Marcus Miller could be back for the bowl game.

Free safety Keith Lewis has been the constant in the defensive backfield, although rover Marley Tucker also started every game. Aaron Gipson also worked into the rover position. Another safety, Stephen Clayton, had to end his career (concussion).

Cornerback Steven Moore would have started every game, but he got hurt against Stanford and missed three games before returning against Oregon State. Marques Binns started in his absence. On the other side, it was musical corners: Gipson, Justin Phinisee and Rodney Woods got starts, and Charles Favroth saw extensive playing time against Arizona State.

Woods (shoulder) could have played in the final two games, but the Ducks sat out him for precautionary reasons. And Phinisee, a sure tackler and physical corner who is getting better at one-on-one coverage, simply deserved the playing time ahead of him.