Defense could lead way as many offensive spots still up for grabs

EUGENE — Quarterback efficiency and consistent wide receiver play will be imperative, but Oregon coach Mike Bellotti likes the look of the Ducks’ spread offense, which led the Pac-10 in yardage (467.5) and scoring (38.2) last season. “We have some elements to be a very good football team,” Bellotti says as the Ducks go into their spring game (2 p.m. Saturday, Autzen Stadium). If things fall into place, Bellotti says, “it’ll be difficult for people” to prepare for Oregon. The offense’s only clunker last year came at UCLA, a 16-0 loss, as the Ducks worked through replacement quarterbacks after Dennis Dixon’s injury. Defense could carry the 2008 Ducks, with the lack of experienced depth, primarily on the defensive line, being the only concern for Bellotti. “I really like this group,” he says. “It works well together — the front line combination of talent, energy, camaraderie and chemistry. Our backups are very raw, and that scares me. But I think our top 13 to 15 kids are really good.” Here’s a look at each position: Quarterback: Nate Costa, rehabilitating his knee and limited in spring drills, hasn’t had any setbacks. He will enter August training camp as the No. 1 guy. “His movement is great,” Bellotti says. Bellotti wants to see Costa establish leadership in the offseason. Justin Roper has been inconsistent, and “I don’t think he has built as much on the foundation of his performance in the Civil War and Sun Bowl,” the coach says, recalling Roper’s 30-for-55 passing for 324 yards and six TDs. But Roper has proved himself in games. Their fellow sophomore, Cody Kempt, from Westview High, “has to improve significantly to be a factor (in camp),” Bellotti says. Surprisingly, Bellotti says that 6-2, 230-pound true freshman Chris Harper could contend to be the No. 3 QB, along with Kempt, walk-on Cade Cooper and true freshman Darron Thomas. Running back: Coaches have been impressed with Andre Crenshaw and Remene Alston and junior college transfer LeGarrette Blount. Bellotti says that with those three and Jeremiah Johnson, “we’ll have a quality group.” Bellotti also is excited to see what incoming Texas freshman LaMichael James, a Johnson-type back at 5-9 and 180 pounds, can do. Wide receiver: Senior Jaison Williams has been working on catching the ball; Bellotti says he has improved. Beyond the 6-5, 240-pound Williams, who has 143 catches, 1,828 yards and 14 TDs the past two years, “there are a lot of unproven guys, and it’s still a question mark until we show we can perform in a game,” Bellotti says. Full-time at receiver, Jeffrey Maehl, much like Roper, has been inconsistent. Speedster and transfer Jamere Holland shows flashes. Aaron Pflugrad has been steady. Drew Davis needs to improve. Terence Scott could be a bigger factor. Rory Cavaille has been mostly hurt. They combined for 33 catches last season. Some receivers will arrive at camp, with Bellotti expecting junior college transfer Ellis Krout and prep Blake Cantu to come north from Texas to contend for playing time. But it’ll be important, Bellotti says, that Maehl on the inside and/or Holland on the outside step up. Tight end: Returning starter Ed Dickson, like Jeremiah Johnson, will be a key target for the Oregon quarterback. Dickson is steady. Malachi Lewis, like many second-year players, has “stalemated,” Bellotti says, adding that Lewis needs to be more intense and consistent. The coach also is waiting for David Paulson, a redshirt standout last season, to play better. One fluid situation: It’s fairly certain that Na’Derris Ward will transfer to Oregon from Georgia, and he has appealed to the NCAA to be immediately eligible. He’s big (6-5, 245), from Oakland, Calif., and good. Offensive line: Despite much speculation, 6-5, 305-pound Max Unger probably will stay at center, but Bellotti wants to keep options open for the versatile senior. Jeff Kendall has been consistent with his center snaps, and Unger could return to tackle on the right side after playing his first two years at left tackle. It depends on the continued development of C.E. Kaiser and Barlow High’s Bo Thran at right tackle, and the Ducks also could go with Jacob Hucko or Mark Lewis at right tackle. At left guard, the other contested position, the starter could be Jordan Holmes or Kaiser, or somebody else. But Bellotti says the first priority is finding a capable right tackle. The 6-6, 330-pound Fenuki Tupou remains entrenched at left tackle, and Lewis started most of the ’07 campaign at right guard. Defensive line: It’s often difficult for JC transfers to adapt quickly, but Bellotti expects touted 6-4, 300-pound Justin Thompson, still going to school at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., to fit into the UO defensive tackle picture in August. “A great deal depends on what kind of shape he comes into camp in,” the coach says. A tackle who showed up early, Blake Ferras, has missed much of spring ball with a foot injury. The starters are fairly clear — ends Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu and senior tackles Cole Linehan (from Banks) and Ra’Shon Harris. Reed, a senior, had 22.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks last season. But developing backups is essential. Redshirt freshmen defensive ends Terrell Turner and Dominic Glover have shown to be potential good players down the road, Bellotti says. The coach feels Linehan and Harris have to be good in ’08 for the defense to thrive. Linebacker: Second-year players Casey Matthews, Kenny Rowe and Brandon Hanna have been fiercely competing in the middle. Last year’s starter, John Bacon, has been recovering from knee surgery. “He has to come back and establish his presence,” Bellotti says. “We’ll have great competition there.” Matthews, son of former NFL great Clay Matthews, took over for Bacon last season, and then hurt his shoulder. The 6-3 Rowe converted from end, where he played last year as a true freshman. He probably will play end in pass-rush situations. “He’s 225 pounds, and you’re not going to play defensive end at 225, day in and day out, 60 plays per game,” Bellotti says. Jerome Boyd (toe) has sat out spring drills, allowing Edward Pleasant and Spencer Paysinger to battle at outside, or “Sam” linebacker spot. Kevin Garrett has excelled at the “Will” position, although Paysinger, Terrance Pritchett and incoming freshman Dewitt Stuckey from Stockton, Calif., will be factors. Secondary: The coaches don’t want players to get too comfortable, so Bellotti is holding off on anointing 5-11, 200-pound junior T.J. Ward as the starting free safety. “T.J. has done a good job of getting better every day,” Bellotti says. That’s a key for the Ducks. Top-shelf corners Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond return, along with star senior rover Patrick Chung. They combined for 284 tackles, 14 interceptions, 40 pass breakups and 19 1/2 tackles for loss last season. The competition has been good for playing time in nickel and dime packages and other duties. Willie Glasper, Ward’s former De La Salle High teammate, is in that conversation, along with Talmadge Jackson, Javes Lewis, Marvin Johnson and Todd Doxey. Special teams: Franklin High’s Matt Evensen, entering his senior year after making 16 of 20 field goals and all 52 extra-point tries last season, continues to be solid at kicker, and 2007 scholarship recruit Daniel Padilla hasn’t improved enough to challenge him. Bellotti says Josh Syria, the Pac-10’s third-best punter (41.7-yard average), has booted the ball as well as anybody he has coached at Oregon. A slew of players will be used at kick returner, including Crenshaw and Alston, and Byrd remains the No. 1 punt returner. It’s fairly certain Holland will get his chance at returning with his blazing speed. Bellotti says the UO’s abundance of good athletes at linebacker, secondary and wide receiver give the coaches lots of options in putting together the coverage teams. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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