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New punter has Ducks thinking big

Down from 265 pounds, Josh Syria is'exceptional,' to coach Mike Bellotti

EUGENE - At this time last year, Josh Syria weighed about 265 pounds, a weight unbecoming of a punter.

While taking classes at Central Washington, he joined an amateur football team, the Wenatchee Valley Rams, 'for something to do, to get me out of the dorms. I was really out of shape and not taking care of myself,' he says.

Syria consulted with his kicking instructor, Ray Pelfrey, who told him that the University of Oregon needed a punter for the coming seasons.

Oregon coaches asked him to attend 2006 spring ball, but Syria remained committed to the Rams. Last September, he did show up, though, and immediately impressed the Duck coaches in practices. In February, he signed to punt on scholarship.

'He's exceptional,' coach Mike Bellotti said at the time.

The 6-3 Syria, now down to 235 pounds, has been battling walk-on Tim Taylor in UO spring practices, but the junior with two years eligibility remaining would have to perform poorly not to get the punting job for the 2007 season.

It'll be Syria's fourth college experience. He attended Ephrata High for three years before graduating from Wenatchee High. He got a jump on college by taking accounting and calculus classes at Wenatchee Valley College and then went to Division I-AA Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., on a full scholarship.

Not a big fan of his Wofford head coach, Syria left after three games. He landed at Central Washington in winter 2005 but never played football there.

Instead, Syria signed with the Rams of the Evergreen Football League, a purportedly amateur league of nine teams. He held a 40-yard average last year while being named EFL special teams player of the year.

Syria grew up following the University of Washington - half his family are Huskies, the other half are Washington State Cougars. He assures fans: His allegiance lies with the Ducks.

Syria understands that UO coaches, including new special- teams coordinator Tom Osborne, put an emphasis on hang time and directional punting.

'Right now, I'm still trying to get things all put together,' he says. 'Sometimes I can kick a good ball 60 yards with a 3.5-(second) hang time, or I can give you a 40-yarder with close to a 5-second hang time.'

Coaches like balls placed from the left or right hash and out. 'I feel like when I'm missing a ball, it's still going in the direction I want,' Syria says. 'That's a big step, because I've had a little bit of a problem with that before.'

Syria sees the Ducks' 2007 schedule and eyes the game at powerful Michigan on Sept. 8. By then, he understands, his technique, get-off and striking have to be tuned, and his mind must be focused on the intense job of punting.

'I can't tell you what will happen, but I have the rest of spring and fall camp to get ready,' he says. 'When it comes to the game, I've got to just let it go, and hope everything I did during practice and the season helps me.'

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UO Football

The defense allowed only two short touchdowns to the second and third units - and a 47-yard field goal by Matt Evensen, ex-Franklin High - in Saturday's extended scrimmage. The offense went no-huddle and struggled. Brady Leaf (to Cameron Colvin) and Cody Kempt (to Terrell Robinson) threw touchdown passes. The front seven played well, coach Mike Bellotti says, pointing out defensive linemen Will Tukuafu and Brandon Bair. … 'Their focus and concentration was on becoming an elite conditioned status - to help us play faster, harder and dig deeper,' Bellotti says of his defense.

• Quarterback Dennis Dixon has made strides to regain his early 2006 form, Bellotti says, and his scrambling ability sets him apart.

'He's working a lot on his technique and using his feet … and I've been pleased with Dennis' leadership, his decision-making,' the coach says.