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Oregon poised to overcome distractions again

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP)

Oregon has a proven ability to shut out distractions and play well, and the Ducks say this season should be no different.

Coming off a 12-1 season, their second straight conference championship and an appearance in the BCS championship game, the Ducks embark on this season under investigation by the NCAA.

''There's always controversy,'' said running back LaMichael James, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year. ''We play for the team and I play for the team. I don't play for anybody else. If you have to worry about what the fans say or what the media has to write about, you're playing for the wrong reasons.''

At issue is a $25,000 payment Oregon made last year to Houston-based Willie Lyles and Complete Scouting Services for what appears to be outdated information about potential recruits. The payment was made shortly after Oregon received a letter of intent from Lache Seastrunk, a running back from Texas who had a mentoring relationship with Lyles.

If the Ducks themselves are worried in the least about the investigation, they're not showing it. In fact, their main concern is rebounding from the 22-19 loss to Auburn for the national championship in January.

''It's the biggest motivation I have in my life,'' junior quarterback Darron Thomas said Thomas performed admirably as a first-year starter last season, throwing for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns. He ran for five more scores. But more than that, he proved himself unflappable in pressure situations.

He threw for 363 yards, including a touchdown to James and the two-point conversion pass to Jeff Maehl, to tie the finale against the Tigers at 19 with 2:33 left. Auburn kicked a field goal with no time remaining for the victory.

It was Thomas' first loss as a starter.

''He's probably the toughest quarterback I've ever been around. If you look at the touchdowns that he's thrown and just put a highlight tape of the 30 some odd touchdowns he threw, and how many shots he took when he was throwing the ball, he's truly a fearless competitor,'' coach Chip Kelly said. '' He's really grown into the leadership role that we've asked him to being the quarterback of our football team.''

James returns to the Ducks even though there was speculation that he could have been as high as a second-round pick in the NFL draft. He kept any questions at bay by announcing before the national championship that he'd return.

''I love my teammates. I think that's the big key. I don't want to let those guys down,'' he said recently about his decision.

James was ranked atop the nation with 153 yards rushing per game until Auburn held him to 49 yards in the title game. He set a new single-season record for the Ducks with 1,731 yards.

Thomas and James anchored Oregon's speedy spread-option offense, which confounded - and exhausted - defenses last season. The Ducks outscored foes 115-24 in the fourth quarter before the championship game. Thirty-five of their 71 regular-season scoring drives took five plays or less, and 24 of those took less than 56 seconds.

An assistant coach at California was suspended for a game after admitting the Golden Bears faked an injury to slow down the Ducks' offensive pace. Little else seemed to work.

Overall, Oregon averaged 49.3 points per game and had an average margin of victory of 30.9 points. This season, the Ducks have been selected to finish atop the North Division of the newly reconfigured Pac-12. The team has also been tapped to win the inaugural league championship game.

Oregon is expected to be ranked high when the AP Top 25 is released on Aug. 20. The Ducks were ranked No. 3 in last season's final AP poll.

But the Ducks are not without some on-the-field issues, too. They've lost three starters on the offensive line, and trusty receiver Maehl has graduated. Kelly has said that he's concerned about the team's depth at running back behind James and Kenjon Barner.

They're also less experienced than last year. Overall the team has 14 seniors, and only eight of those started last season.

Then there's the recruiting matter, which doesn't look as though it will be resolved any time soon. The NCAA does not comment on ongoing investigations, while Oregon has hired a law firm and won't comment on the allegations except to say the university is cooperating with the inquiry.

''I'd love to answer all the questions, to be honest with you, and we will at the appropriate time when the report from the outside law firm is made public,'' Kelly said at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles. '' I'd like to talk about the whole situation and clear up a lot of misconceptions.''

So for now, it's business as usual for the Ducks, much like it was last summer when Kelly dismissed quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, hailed as a Heisman hopeful, after he had too many brushes with the law. Thomas emerged - and excelled - in the wake of that upheaval.

The year before, LeGarrette Blount was suspended after punching a Boise State player following a season-opening Oregon loss. James took over as the Ducks' running back and became the Pac-10 freshman of the year on offense.

''Everybody wants to say all this about Oregon and we don't like that,'' Thomas said. ''We've just been working hard getting ready for the season, ready to shut everybody up, ready to come out and play ball and forget about all these allegations.''

Tagged: Oregon, Auburn, LaMichael James, Darron Thomas

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