Oregon rebuilds reputation tarnished in offseason
The Oregon Ducks have repaired a reputation sullied in the offseason by keeping their focus on the field.
The defending Pac-10 champions are ranked No. 5 this week after routing New Mexico 72-0 in the opener and thumping Tennessee 48-13 on the road.
But there were questions surrounding the Ducks after a tumultuous offseason, during which their starting quarterback got kicked off the team, their star running back spent a couple of nights in jail and their placekicker got into a street brawl.
''It feels great to get back to playing football and not having to deal with those other things,'' tight end David Paulson said this week.
Oregon ended last season on a high note. Even though they lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, it was the first appearance the Ducks made in the game since New Year's Day in 1995.
Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was already getting Heisman Trophy buzz as a dual-threat quarterback, and running back LaMichael James won the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year award after running for a conference record 1,546 yards.
But the rosy prospects for this season began to dim in January, when a campus fraternity house was robbed and Masoli was implicated. Then James was jailed after an altercation with his ex-girlfriend.
Both athletes went on to plead guilty to charges connected to the allegations.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly suspended Masoli, who compounded his situation by reportedly lying about it, for the upcoming season, while James was suspended for the opener. Masoli was dismissed from the Ducks a few weeks later when he was stopped for a traffic violation and marijuana was found in the car.
Masoli now plays for Mississippi.
Kicker Rob Beard also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from the street fight that left him hospitalized with a badly broken nose. Like James, he was suspended for the season opener.
Defensive end Matt Simms was dismissed by Kelly after he pleaded guilty to physical harassment for striking a man he thought had beaten Beard.
Receiver Jamere Holland was also kicked off the team after posting vulgar comments and criticizing Kelly on the Facebook social networking site.
Strong safety Eddie Pleasant said the Ducks have been all over the map emotionally in the past nine months.
''It's been hectic in a good and a bad way. We lost our quarterback, you know, and he was a great player for us and he did a lot of great things,'' Pleasant said. ''But we had to move on ... and DT (Darron Thomas) is doing a great job right now. It's been a roller coaster but we all ride it together, we all bought in and everything's going good so far.''
Indeed, things are going extremely well for the Ducks right now.
Sophomore Thomas won the starting job over fifth-year senior Nate Costa in fall camp and has thrown for 422 yards and four touchdowns so far. James returned from his suspension to run for 142 yards and a TD against Tennessee.
The Ducks have also seen some unexpected stars emerge. Backup running back Kenjon Barner ran for four touchdowns in the opener against the Lobos. He is averaging 18 points a game, tied for best in the nation.
Sophomore cornerback and punt returner Cliff Harris returned a pair of punts for touchdowns against New Mexico, then ran an interceptions 76 yards for a score against the Volunteers.
The Ducks play host to Portland State, of the FCS Big Sky Conference, on Saturday before the Pac-10 season opens the next weekend at Arizona State. Oregon was picked in the preseason to repeat as league champions, despite the offseason tumult.
After what Oregon has been through since January, it is all but assured they won't overlook the Vikings. They don't really want any more drama.
''We're just focusing on getting better every day,'' Paulson said. ''You only get 12 chances to play a game and you can't take any of them lightly. You have to be prepared for every one of them.''