Oregon expects to excel after offseason turmoil
When Oregon's season ended in Pasadena on New Year's Day, it appeared all but certain that the Pacific-10 champions would lead the conference again this fall. But after a tumultuous offseason, the Ducks' outlook in the league is far more tenuous.
Even though Oregon is still considered the league's strongest team in light of Southern California's downturn, the Ducks' fate this season really depends on how the team handles expectations and the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
Nobody is more aware of that than second-year coach Chip Kelly.
''Preseason rankings don't mean anything to us,'' Kelly said. ''The great thing about our game is that it's played out on the field.''
Oregon's offseason troubles started in the weeks following their Rose Bowl appearance against Ohio State. Whispers about a fraternity house theft that involved football players led to charges against Masoli. Then prolific freshman running back LaMichael James was accused of assaulting his ex-girlfriend.
Both athletes went on to plead guilty to charges connected to the allegations. Kelly suspended Masoli - projected as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate - for the upcoming season, while James was suspended for the season opener.
Masoli's fall from grace was complete weeks later when he was stopped for a traffic violation and marijuana was found in the car. Kelly kicked him off the team.
Nate Costa, the Oregon quarterback whose injury two seasons ago ultimately led to Masoli's rise, looks favored at this point to take over this fall as the Ducks try to put the disarray in the past. But he's going to be challenged by Darron Thomas and there's even a possibility that the Ducks could rotate both.
A final decision will be made the week before fall camp ends, Kelly said. Costa is more of a traditional passer while Thomas is more of a threat on the ground.
Costa is a senior and has been with the Ducks for five years. But he's had three knee surgeries - and only one start - in that span.
Kelly has said the role of the quarterback this season will be to distribute the ball to James, receiver Jeff Maehl and others, but it cannot be ignored that the quarterback has historically been key in Kelly's offenses. Masoli and Dennis Dixon before him prove the point.
In fact, when Costa went down just before the start of the 2008 season, the Ducks appeared to flail for a time without a true replacement.
But Kelly is correct that Oregon has a talented corps of returning players with the ability to boost anyone in the QB role.
''Our players understand what we expect of them,'' he said. ''We think we're going to have a pretty good team this year.''
Among the most visible is James, who rushed for 1,546 yards last season, the ninth-highest total in the nation. He had seven consecutive 100-yard games before Ohio State limited him to 70 in Oregon's 26-17 loss in the Rose Bowl.
He will sit out the season opener against New Mexico on Sept. 4 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge stemming from the altercation with his former girlfriend. Place-kicker Rob Beard was also suspended for the opener after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge for his role in a street fight that left him seriously injured.
James will be backed up by fellow sophomore Kenjon Barner and complemented by Maehl, who had 53 catches last season. Oregon also returns all five starters on its offensive line.
Oregon's offense racked up more than 37 points and 424 yards per game during the regular season while ending USC's seven-year reign as Pac-10 champion.
The Ducks have eight returning starters on defense, including defensive linemen Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair, along with linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger.
The Ducks were picked by the Pac-10 media to finish atop the conference, followed closely by USC. Oregon State was third.
''This is a conference that any team in it can win,'' Bair said recently at the Pac-10 media day at the Rose Bowl. ''It's not just about one or two teams. There's talent across the board.''