Hot-and-cold receiver will be key player for offense with new faces
EUGENE - Oregon's enigmatic receiver, Jaison Williams, has been saying and doing all the right things to try to be one of the Pac-10's best play-makers.
Williams has 143 catches for 1,828 yards and 14 touchdowns the past two seasons. But he has been just as well-known for his drops, and he lost his starting role for one game last season because of it.
Williams could be the key for the Oregon offense, which has plenty of parts but will start a new quarterback and use a host of young receivers next season.
'Jaison has done a good job in the leadership role and worked hard in the offseason, and I expect big things from him,' offensive coordinator Chip Kelly says. 'He really is a key player.'
The Ducks, who concluded spring practice with Saturday's spring game, expect their running game to flourish with Jeremiah Johnson, LeGarrette Blount (the star of spring ball) and Andre Crenshaw, as well as the quick and elusive Nate Costa at quarterback. Oregon has led the Pac-10 in rushing two years running.
While there may be six quarterbacks on the roster, Costa appears to be the starter heading into training camp. Justin Roper and Chris Harper could play some, though -and true freshman Harper emerged as a weapon in spring ball with his explosive running and strong arm.
But balance makes for good offense, and the Ducks stumbled after losing Dennis Dixon in the 10th game last year. Through nine games, Oregon led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency (159.1 points), a statistic derived from completion percentage (.672), yards (2,152), interceptions (three) and touchdowns (20).
With Dixon out, the Ducks struggled mightily with the pass at Arizona and UCLA before Roper rallied them in the Civil War and Sun Bowl games. The Ducks finished fourth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency (132.1), with 2,806 yards (sixth), a .591 completion percentage, 10 interceptions and 26 TDs.
How the passing game will fare this year is tough to project because Costa is coming off his second knee surgery and the receiving corps has some talented players but no one besides Williams with much experience. The Ducks figure to lean on tight end Ed Dickson and running back Johnson to catch some balls.
'I'm not worried about our passing game; Nate didn't play in the spring,' Kelly says. 'We're going to be fine.'
The 6-1, 210-pound Costa would have played after Dixon went out last season, had he not blown out his knee in practice, and coach Mike Bellotti believes the Ducks would not have lost again going into the national championship game.
'He was that good,' Dickson says. 'His confidence - Nate makes precise reads in going to receivers.'
Costa throws very good balls, too, spirals mostly, and he has experience in the spread offense from his days at Hilmar (Calif.) High and through three years at Oregon.
There will be some growing pains next season, but 'hopefully they won't last long,' he says.
Four more receivers will join the team in August -and who knows if Derrick Jones, who has had academic problems, will rejoin the team? Other than Williams and fellow senior Terence Scott, role-playing junior Rory Cavaille and incoming junior Ellis Krout, the main receivers will be freshmen or sophomores. Scott played only briefly last season, out of necessity.
'We have a lot of young talent, but not a lot of depth,' Costa says. 'One thing all the receivers have is pretty good hands. I'm confident if I throw them the ball, they'll catch it.'
But the Ducks need to improve their routes, timing and blocking.
'We've got a long ways to go,' Jeffrey Maehl says.
Receivers young, talented
The starters figure to be Williams and sophomores Jamere Holland and Maehl, the latter playing slot.
The 6-1, 190-pound Holland has blazing speed, having run a 4.21-second 40-yard dash. It'll be interesting to see how he develops catching the ball and running after the catch, as well as keeping up with UO's fast-paced, no-huddle offense. He certainly could be used on sweeps and reverses.
'He's something special,' Maehl says.
'Once he gets things down, he'll be unstoppable,' Williams says.
Maehl, 6-1 and 180, already has the reputation as a tough receiver, but he had an inconsistent spring.
'I need to work more on technique - blocking, getting off stuff in my routes, trying to get off linebackers forcing me out wide,' he says.
Scott and sophomores Drew Davis and Aaron Pflugrad should contribute.
Communication between quarterbacks and receivers remains imperative, Davis says.
'Sometimes we're not on the same page with the quarterbacks as far as depth of routes and what we should do when we break off (the route),' he adds. 'That stuff will come with fall camp, more practice, more plays, more timing.
'We're young, and that's good and bad. But knowing we have time to progress … there's a lot of time before the first game.'
Cornerback Walter Thurmond says the receiver corps is very good. 'But as a group, they have to catch the ball more efficiently than they did in the spring,' he says.
Can anybody be a Pac-10 difference maker other than Williams?
A nightmare to cover because of his 6-5, 240 frame, Williams has been working on grasping the ball. He has done some eye exercises to improve his hand-eye coordination. His confidence remains intact.
'I've been here five years. If I don't have confidence by now …' he says, 'I have to suck it up and do what I can.'
Williams adds that he intends to focus on leadership.
'These guys are going to be awesome,' he says of the newer receivers. 'They're so young and ready to work.'
Harper impresses coaches
Roper says he would be OK with playing behind Costa, as long as the team wins.
It appears the Ducks will use the 6-2, 230-pound Harper rather than fellow true freshman Darron Thomas.
Harper, talented enough to play running back in the Pac-10, practiced with the starters late in spring ball.
Harper and Thomas quarterbacked the Green team, which got walloped by the White team in the spring game.
Harper had some nice runs and completed a couple of downfield passes, including one that tight end Malachi Lewis hauled in with one arm.
'He's elusive, a hard kid to get a hold of - he can buy time and keep himself alive,' Kelly says of Harper. 'He does a nice job of keeping his eyes upfield. He can rifle it on the run. He's a big kid, runs a 4.5 (40), and he's got a big upside.
'For only being here a month … the improvement he's made excites you. Down the road, I think he'll be a heck of a player.'
With Harper and Thomas in the mix, it remains to be seen what becomes of walk-on Cade Cooper and third-year scholarship QB Cody Kempt.
Then again, the Ducks have lost more than one quarterback to injury in previous seasons. It might behoove the coaches to keep everybody around.