UO should contend, but choosing right QB will be a key decision
by: ©2008 BRIAN KANOF, UO Coach Mike Bellotti (left) and QB Justin Roper brought home the Sun Bowl trophy after the Ducks’ 56-21 win over South Florida.

Dennis Dixon is moving on, and maybe Jonathan Stewart, too.

But the Oregon Ducks are losing only 10 seniors who started or played key roles this season. So they could be one of the teams challenging USC for the Pac-10 title in 2008.

Quarterback will be the key position.

Nate Costa will return from his second knee surgery, and Justin Roper hopes to continue the momentum from his seven combined touchdowns against Oregon State and South Florida.

A walk-on, Cade Cooper, should be ready to battle them in spring ball, after recovering from a foot injury and surgery, while true freshman Darron Thomas from Houston, Texas, plans to enroll early at Oregon and participate. And coach Mike Bellotti says the competition will include Cody Kempt, the No. 2 quarterback at the end of this season.

Roper, who passed for four touchdowns in the 56-21 Sun Bowl victory over South Florida, downplays the notion that he proved himself in the last two games.

'I didn't come in with high expectations,' he adds. 'I just wanted to have fun playing football.'

Kempt expressed disappointment at not playing key minutes against South Florida, but 'we got a win, and that's the No. 1 thing I care about. I'm happy Justin played well and helped our team win.'

As for the spring competition, 'you have to give everybody a chance,' Kempt says. 'Especially in the winter, everybody progresses and gets better. Hopefully they open it up in the spring.'

Stewart's running mate, Jeremiah Johnson, has 1,000-yard potential in his senior season, after knee surgery, unless academic troubles become part of his story. Academics kept him home from the trip to El Paso, Texas.

Andre Crenshaw and Remene Alston also return at running back, and the Ducks recently signed big LaGarrette Blount from Mississippi.

The most wide-open position battle could be at left guard, where Josh Tschirgi started for three years. It appears Jacob Hucko and Bo Thran will be the right tackle candidates to succeed three-year starter Geoff Schwartz.

Garren Strong departs from the receiving corps, although it remains to be seen whether Derrick Jones, who has had a variety of issues, stays on the team. 'It's more up to him than me,' Bellotti says. Overall, the coach adds, 'we have to recruit some receivers.'

Defense could dominate

Defensively, the Ducks lose two linemen (David Faaeteete, Jeremy Gibbs), along with A.J. Tuitele and Kwame Agyeman at linebacker and free safety Matthew Harper.

The offense gave the defense margin for error this season, especially early with a healthy Dixon, but the roles could be reversed next season because of the Ducks' inexperience at quarterback.

'We want to be kind of like USC, known for our defense,' says Jairus Byrd, who had two interceptions against South Florida (fellow corner Walter Thurmond returning his pick for a touchdown). 'Coach Al (defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti) thinks we'll reach our full potential.'

The Ducks will miss Gibbs' versatility. But Cole Linehan has started at defensive tackle, and Tonio Celotto and Ra'Shon Harris played this season. Also, the Ducks have a verbal commitment from touted JC defensive tackle Justin Thompson of El Camino College in Torrance, Calif.

Jerome Boyd returns at outside linebacker, middle linebackers Casey Matthews and John Bacon should be healthy, and redshirt freshman Terrance Pritchett takes aim at the vacant inside backer spot.

'Can't forget about KG ( Kevin Garrett), he's good, with game experience,' Boyd says of the junior inside linebacker from Carson, Calif. 'But TP has a good motor, running everywhere. We look real nice at linebacker.'

Maehl's role uncertain

The coaches will have to decide whether Jeffrey Maehl stays at receiver or moves back to free safety; he played both positions as a true freshman.

Who replaces free safety Matthew Harper will depend on recruiting and player development and 'who's the next best player in the secondary,' Bellotti says. Other candidates there could include Byrd, T.J. Ward and redshirt freshman Todd Doxey.

'If we have Jeffrey Maehl back there, it strengthens our whole team,' Aliotti says. 'Selfishly, I want him. He was on loan.'

But, Aliotti notes, 'many times we've lost that war,' listing Tim Day, Dante Rosario, Terrance Whitehead, Kyle Weatherspoon and Ed Dickson among the list of defensive players who went to offense and stayed there.

The Ducks also will have standout kicker Matt Evensen and punter Josh Syria returning next season.

'We need to have a solid offense and defense to be a championship team like we want to be,' defensive end Nick Reed says. 'We could have won the national championship this year; what's to say we can't do it next year?'

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