Coach Mike Bellotti wants to work on his players' heads more than anything else when the Oregon Ducks begin spring football practice Tuesday.
'We need to develop greater mental toughness,' Bellotti says. 'We need to create that through grueling, competitive events. We're going to change up some of the things we do in practice. There will be an emphasis on competing and creating more competitive situations.'
Bellotti, of course, also wants to avoid injuries, which already have affected what the Ducks will be able to get done in the 15 spring practices (the spring game tentatively is at 2 p.m. April 28 at Autzen Stadium). At least seven players won't participate or will be limited in spring drills. And most of the best recruiting class in the Bellotti era won't arrive till August.
Oregon finished 7-6 last season, losing four consecutive games, including an embarrassing 38-8 Las Vegas Bowl defeat to BYU.
Gary Crowton left for Louisiana State, and his successor, Chip Kelly, enters his first spring football season as offensive coordinator. Longtime assistant coach Neal Zoumboukos joined new Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny's staff, Tom Osborne returned to the Ducks to be special teams and tight-end coach, and Steve Greatwood inherited the title of associate head coach.
Bellotti gets all philosophical in describing what went wrong last season.
'Confidence is borne out of performance. Performance is borne out of creative competitive opportunities,' he says. 'So, it is one of those circular things. … I thought we lost our edge (last season), and that edge can be a combination of confidence and mental toughness. The tougher you are, the more confident you are about yourself.'
Fourteen starters and 51 lettermen return for the Ducks.
At quarterback, Dennis Dixon digressed last year; he and Brady Leaf struggled throwing the ball through the Vegas bowl. Bellotti says Dixon, Leaf, sophomore Nathan Costa and freshmen Cody Kempt and Justin Roper will be given equal reps in the first week of practice, and workload after that will be 'earned.'
Costa, 5 for 5 for 73 yards in mop-up duty last season, will be given a fair shot to challenge Dixon and Leaf. But Dixon and Leaf will be seniors, and Bellotti expects them to be 'significantly improved' next season.
Running game set
The Ducks won't change their spread offense much to accommodate juniors Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson. But Bellotti says the Ducks can run better by being 'more efficient' and using different personnel groupings (like two backs playing together).
The Ducks led the conference in rushing (181.9 yards per game) for the first time since 1955, thanks to 'one of the best one-two tandems in the nation,' Bellotti says -and Dixon's running.
In the competition at running back, Remene Alston and Andre Crenshaw also will get reps.
Jaison Williams, who had 68 catches for 984 yards and six TDs last season, will be healthy after back problems in 2006. He and Brian Paysinger return as starting receivers.
Wideout Drew Davis, fresh off finishing classes at Montbello High in Denver, will be part of spring ball. Ed Dickson has the athleticism to be the next UO tight end.
On the offensive line, several players are eyeing two open starting positions: Fenuki Tupou, Patrick So'oalo, Jeff Kendall, Mark Lewis, Jordan Holmes and C.E. Kaiser. Kendall and Holmes will get long looks at center.
Injuries will limit the defensive line's spring performance, but Victor Felipe returns after his redshirt year (elbow injury) and will play some end and tackle. Junior college transfer William Tukuafu, who has three years of eligibility left, joins the team. Brandon Bair will get lots of work.
The linebacker spots are open. 'Linebacker is probably the area of greatest concern,' Bellotti says. Some linebackers who could benefit from spring ball: Kevin Garrett, Josh Thomas-Dotson, John Bacon, Jerome Boyd and Spencer Paysinger.
The secondary will be one of Oregon's strengths, with three starters back and Jackie Bates returning to the fold. Safeties Ryan DePalo and Matthew Harper, and cornerbacks Terrell Ward, Jameel Dowling, Willie Glasper, Chad Peppars and Marvin Johnson will look to make an impact.
Josh Syria will get some work as Oregon's new punter. Matt Evensen, from Franklin High, will vie with two others at kicker - at least until recruit Daniel Padilla arrives this summer.