March 30, 2010

Oregon ready to shift focus to the field

Spring practice undoubtedly will be welcomed by the Oregon Ducks, who are anxious to get back on the field.

They've had too many issues off it.

A winter rife with problems led to several suspensions or dismissals, and that has caused headaches for coach Chip Kelly. It has also raised doubts about Oregon's ability to successfully defend its Pac-10 championship and be in the hunt for the national title.

But a closer look shows that only the suspension of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who pleaded guilty to burglary charges, should have a major effect. Running back LaMichael James was suspended for the season opener against New Mexico, but Oregon still won't lose. The other sanctions involved backups and underachieving wide receiver Jamere Holland, who was dismissed.

OREGON AT-A-GLANCE
RB LaMichael James is among the players
who had offseason off-field issues.
THE BASICS
Coach: Chip Kelly
Last season: 10-3 overall, 8-1 in the Pac-10. Lost 26-17 to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
Spring dates: March 30-May 1.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (9): G Mark Asper, WR D.J. Davis, C Jordan Holmes, RB LaMichael James, T C.E. Kaiser, WR Jeff Maehl, T Bo Thran, WR Lavasier Tuinei, G Carson York.
Defense (8): T Brandon Bair, FS John Boyett, CB Talmadge Jackson, SS Javes Lewis, LB Casey Matthews, LB Spencer Paysinger, LB Eddie Pleasant, E Kenny Rowe.
Special teams (1): P Jackson Rice.
The Ducks still will be a force in the Pac-10 and national championship races. That is, if the quarterback play is adequate.

Fifth-year senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas should be the primary competitors to emerge as Masoli's successor. They've avoided trouble off the field, and the Ducks are hopeful they can cause some on it.

Here's a look at Oregon as spring drills begin.

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Even though James is suspended for the first game of the season, the Ducks are loaded at running back. Remember, he only had two carries in last year's opener and still rushed for 1,546 yards. He'll be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Sophomore Kenjon Barner is also fast and elusive. His numbers should increase in 2010. The Ducks also have five-star prospect Lache Seastrunk who arrives in the summer. Five starting offensive linemen are back to block for all that running back talent. The secondary is strong, too. Three starters and two part-time starters return. The Ducks ranked 44th in the nation in pass defense last season. If experience counts, they should be better this fall.

HELP IS NEEDED

Quarterback was a position of strength until Masoli was suspended for the season. That leaves the Ducks' offense in the hands of either Costa, who has been injury-plagued and played little last season, or Thomas, who redshirted last season. While Rowe, who had 11.5 sacks in '09, is back, there is concern about the defensive line. Two starters were lost, including All-Pac 10 end Will Tukuafu, and depth there is questionable.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

WR Diante Jackson: A big target (6 feet 2/200 pounds), Jackson could be the deep threat the Ducks need. He redshirted last season after arriving in Eugene as a four-star prospect from California.

TE David Paulson: Though overshadowed by Ed Dickson last season, Paulson still made five starts. He had the team's highest average per catch at 15.4 yards. Paulson, a junior, has excellent hands and is a solid blocker. He should have a greater role in the offense with Dickson gone.

DE Isaac Remington: Remington, a junior college transfer, is expected to challenge for a starting job this spring. At the least, he will add depth. He has some needed pass-rushing skills.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB Nate Costa: No one has had more hard luck than Costa, a senior who has come back from two major knee injuries while at Oregon. Costa had earned the Ducks' starting quarterback job in 2008, but he sustained a season-ending knee injury before the season started. While serving as Masoli's backup last season, Costa was 20-of-33 with an interception and a touchdown in his first playing appearances since '06. He will compete with Thomas to lead the Ducks' offense.

THE BUZZ

Despite the offseason issues and suspensions, Oregon is loaded. Costa and Thomas figure to be primary competitors to replace Masoli. If either adequately fills the void, the Ducks can be legitimate national championship contenders next fall. The Oregon faithful will keep fingers crossed all spring and look for positive signs at that position.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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