Young Ducks wait their turn
UO redshirts and other newcomers will go after starting roles next season
EL PASO, Texas Ñ It's the nature of college football. After Oregon plays Wednesday in the Sun Bowl, a slew of young and redshirting players will take aim at veterans and their prized positions.
Ryan Gilliam, a speedy cornerback from Florida, could return kicks and punts and play at cornerback. Garren Strong, a 6-3 receiver from Cupertino, Calif., has won raves from coaches and players.
But maybe the most visible new player will be Johnny DuRocher, the quarterback from Spanaway, Wash. He has been redshirting Ñ but also practicing as the No. 3 quarterback, just in case the Ducks need him.
'Johnny and I have already had 'The Talk,'' says QB Kellen Clemens, a sophomore. 'He said, 'My cross hairs are set squarely on your back.' And I've said, 'That's good. They should be.'
'Everything's out in the open with me and Johnny, which is good. It makes things a lot more comfortable between us and easier on our friendship.'
Clemens shared time with senior Jason Fife this year, although he started every game and took over full control of the offense in the final two games at UCLA and Oregon State. He remembers pressuring Fife for playing time and playing in blowouts last year, finally eclipsing him by the Seattle Bowl, then beating him out this year.
The same things could happen with Clemens-DuRocher. 'I told him he better engineer a couple blowouts,' DuRocher says. 'I want to play.'
Coach Mike Bellotti says DuRocher will battle Clemens, because the kid has already improved immensely since arriving at UO last spring Ñ five months before other prep recruits. He might get a series here or there next season.
'I think he'll compete very well,' Bellotti says. 'Johnny has some intangibles Ñ a great sense of the pocket. He has to work on his repetitive accuracy and athleticism. He's grown an inch and put on 10-15 pounds, and I expect him to grow even more.'
The 6-4, 210-pound freshman nearly sacrificed his redshirt year at Arizona, a 48-10 win. It would have been good experience, but it probably would have been the only time he played all season.
'Coach Bellotti asked me. I was real shocked,' DuRocher says. 'I decided. I talked with Kellen and Jason, and they told me what they thought. I wasn't ready to jump in there. It was a good decision.'
Being stuck as part-player, part-redshirt hasn't been easy. 'Doesn't get to go down and throw with the scouts. Doesn't get any reps with us,' Clemens says. 'He hasn't had a lot of work all season, but he's making the most of the reps he has gotten. Winter, then spring ball, is when Johnny's going to make strides.'
Offensively, three true freshmen have played this year. Receiver Kyle Weatherspoon has seen duty because of injuries to others and Kellen Taylor's suspension and dismissal; Dan Kause has been the No. 2 tight end because of injuries; and Dante Rosario, an athletic fullback, has become part of most game plans.
Strong and another big receiver, Brian Paysinger, would be the next scholarship players on the depth chart. DuRocher has thrown to them mostly with the third team, and Strong has made quite an impression.
At least one UO player, safety Marley Tucker, says the kid will start.
'Garren has got tremendous size and range Ñ 6-3, about 190 pounds Ñ and great hands and quickness,' Bellotti says. In practice, he says, Strong 'caught a one-handed grab, and just kept running; made you go, 'Wow.' He can catch the ball and make a move that leaves (defenders) grasping for air. It's real exciting.'
On defense, Gilliam could factor into nickel and dime situations as maybe the lone youngster to see playing time. The Ducks should be really deep at defensive back. 'Bird,' as they call him, can fly Ñ sprinter's speed Ñ but he still must put on weight. The 5-9 Gilliam weighs about 162 now, and needs to be about 175, 'which I think he can carry easily,' Bellotti says.
'Ryan has great natural instincts as a corner Ñ great speed and reactive quickness. I think he'll be very valuable.'
Another young player to watch will be J.D. Nelson, a redshirt freshman who has played mostly on special teams. The 5-11, 197-pound son of former Stanford star Darrin Nelson is likely to be Keith Lewis' replacement at free safety, maybe the most important position on defense.
Lewis has said Nelson 'can be the best DB to ever come out of Oregon.' Wow. Really?
'He's definitely a fast learner, picked up the scheme really well even though right now he's more of a machine; does what he's told to do,' Lewis says. 'Once he starts getting comfortable with the position, he's going to be really good.'
Says Bellotti: 'Keith must really like him. But I haven't seen enough of him in situations to anoint him or crown him.'
Weatherspoon tweaked his hamstring in practice, leaving Samie Parker and Demetrius Williams as the only healthy receivers. Bellotti says Fife's role at receiver may increase with Weatherspoon hobbled. 'He can run, has great hands, and it's kind of a new lease on life for him,' Bellotti says. Maybe Clemens laterals to Fife, who throws deep; Fife has the running ability to beat cornerbacks.
Minnesota might move strong safety Justin Isom to corner, because the Gophers sent freshman Trumaine Banks home. É Gopher free safety Eli Ward and Lewis got into it verbally during the teams' talent show Friday, with Ward touting himself in a rap. 'Supposedly, he's the best safety in the nation,' Lewis says. 'Guess we'll find out. We talked a little bit; I said what I needed to say.'
This review of the talent show by hard-core Duck Joe Giansante, Oregon's TV play-by-play announcer: Some Minnesota players sang. 'Sounded like those bad American Idol wannabes.' UO receiver Alex Mercier played 'Johnny B. Goode' on his electric guitar 'and brought the house down.' Things got lively when Minnesota and Oregon started directing raps at each other. But the highlight was Oregon's seven Polynesian players doing a traditional chant, led by Haloti Ngata. 'They wore traditional garb Ñ no shirts Ñ and hit themselves and grunted and screamed. Very, very intense. The Midwestern boys didn't know what to think.'
Tight end Nate LiaBraaten, who missed most of the season (broken ankle), has made it back for the game. Receiver Marcus Maxwell (shoulder) is out. É Bellotti wants to sign 24 or 25 players on Feb. 4; he says the Ducks have received 12 verbal commitments.
Maybe the most famous former Duck, Portland's Joey Harrington, will not be attending the Sun Bowl. He and a buddy were scheduled to go to New Zealand this week on vacation.