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Ducks look for bowl QB

Coach says Roper has a slight advantage in competition with Kempt
by: JEFF GROSS, QB Justin Roper (left) held the Ducks together in the Civil War after Cody Kempt sustained a concussion. Roper and Kempt are now battling to start in the Sun Bowl.

EUGENE - Through the haze of a concussion, Cody Kempt watched Justin Roper almost lead Oregon to victory in the Civil War.

'I'm really proud of him. He played a helluva game,' Kempt says.

Now the two redshirt freshmen are battling for the opportunity to play in the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against South Florida.

Duck coach Mike Bellotti says Roper slightly leads the quarterback competition. But how much would Roper have played against Oregon State if Kempt hadn't run smack into Beaver linebacker Alan Darlin?

Kempt, a 6-3 left-hander from Westview High, has taken his lumps in the last month. In relief of injured Brady Leaf at UCLA, he went 6 of 23 for 52 yards and got knocked out briefly by defensive end Bruce Davis. Against OSU, he was 0 for 3 before Darlin took him out.

'It was pretty much my fault for the concussion, but I learned a valuable lesson - not to take on linebackers,' Kempt says. 'It's not high school anymore -you can't run over guys in college. It taught me to slide and dive. I've been watching Dennis Dixon's clips. He's great at getting down.'

Roper wasn't expecting to play much, if at all, against the Beavers, but he proved to be composed and fairly good in his first extensive collegiate action.

'I didn't really feel that I played amazingly great, or better than I thought I would,' says the 6-7, strong-armed righty from Buford, Ga. 'I didn't go in with any expectations.'

It has been an audition of sorts for Kempt and Roper, who only would have sniffed the field this year had Dixon and Leaf remained healthy and Nate Costa not blown out his knee at midseason.

Now the position is completely up in the air. Bellotti says the Ducks will sign two prep quarterbacks; Texans Darron Thomas and Kelly Page have given verbal commitments, and the Ducks still are on the list of touted prep Terrelle Pryor, who also is considering Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Florida.

Walk-ons are long shots

The expected 2008 starter, Costa, will be back for the second half of spring football, and only for drills.

Oregon coaches will evaluate whether walk-on Cade Cooper, a transfer from BYU, can help the team. But he hasn't shown much in practice because of foot surgery. Another walk-on from BYU, Canby's Sam Doman, has been playing QB in practice, but 'he is probably going to be a tight end,' Bellotti says. 'He's filling in right now.'

When Kempt signed with Oregon, there was some talk of his eventually playing in the secondary or at outside linebacker, because of his athleticism. But he clearly wants to remain behind the center.

'I don't see any reason why I would need to change positions,' he says. 'I've played in two games, establishing myself to the coaches, showing that I'm capable of starting and leading the team. Quarterback is the position for me, and it's where I want to stay the rest of my career.'

Roper says the coaches have not indicated to him anything about his future - at Oregon or elsewhere. His development was slowed for a while by school. Last year, as an architecture major, he had classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays that conflicted with practice. Wednesday was the only full practice he attended -Mondays and Fridays are abbreviated practices for the Ducks.

So all the practice time and 'reps' he has gotten this season have really helped him develop.

'I've done a lot of growing,' says Roper, who switched to a business major.

QBs benefit from work

Roper has been working on passing accuracy, recognizing defensive coverages, making quicker decisions and throwing to the lead receivers. A former point guard in basketball, he runs well laterally, but 'I don't have great straight-ahead speed.'

Roper has the strongest arm on the team, but the problem is, 'He wants to try to fit (the ball) into tight spots,' Bellotti says. 'He's getting a better feel for receivers - less velocity is easier on them, gives them more time to react.'

Roper says offensive coordinator Chip Kelly has made the offense simpler for the young quarterbacks, and Kelly also has worked extensively with each QB on his delivery. Kempt's has needed a lot of work.

'Before,' Kempt says, 'I still had the ball at my (left) ear, but the point was pointing out. I changed the point of the ball so it's facing the target. I get a better spin on the ball, it seems like more velocity. I'm also focusing on a high release point; sometimes I drop my elbow and it causes the ball to sail.

'I'm focusing on finishing the throw, bringing the (left) hand to the other pocket; before I just let it go, and it didn't get full spin.

'Footwork has also been key - with the front foot stepping toward the target. Without getting the foot out in front of the receiver to lead him, I threw behind him.'

Getting more repetitions in practice helps the QBs polish these and other things.

'It's allowed me to calm down,' Kempt says, 'and just play football.'

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Oregon vs. South Florida

74th Sun Bowl: Oregon (8-4, 5-4 Pac-10) vs. No. 21 South Florida (9-3, 4-3 Big East), 11 a.m. PT, Dec. 31, Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas

Radio, TV: KXL (750 AM), KOIN (6)

• Jonathan Stewart remains mum on the subject of returning for his senior season. If the Sun Bowl is his last game, 'I think he'll go out in a big way,' Bellotti says. 'I think he'll play well either way. If I was a betting man or guessing on those things, I would guess he would be back next year, based on what I've heard from him and from others.'

• South Florida coach Jim Leavitt says it's tough to get noticed in Tampa Bay, with the NFL's Buccaneers around, but 'we had sellout stadiums -how do you get 67,500 and not be noticed? We were on national TV almost every game.

'It's a college football town - the Florida Gators are big, because South Florida never had football before. (South Florida) is one of the top 10 largest universities in the country, and it's growing. We'll get more alumni; there's probably 120,000 right here. We're getting noticed.'

• Leavitt shuns any talk that the Sun Bowl will be 'a letdown' for his team because the Ducks don't have QB Dennis Dixon. 'We know that's not all that Oregon has. You don't get to No. 2 in the country with one guy,' he says. 'We know Oregon's going to come with a full head of steam.'

- Jason Vondersmith