A Closer Look: Oregon Ducks strive to improve

In 2001, Oregon football was on top of the world as far as Duck fans were concerned. The Green and Yellow of Oregon finished their best season ever with a win over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl and a final No. 2 ranking nationally. Quarterback Joey Harrington was the darling of the NFL draft, and it seemed everywhere one looked there was a lot of talk that the Ducks had finally reached the status of a football power.

Headed into the season last August, hopes soared as the Ducks finally were on the receiving end of national respect and at one point in September, Oregon found itself ranked No. 9 nationally. Then the bottom fell out.

One started the season off with six straight wins, but consider the quality of the opponents and margin of victory, Duck fans felt uneasy about their team. Oregon beat Mississippi State in opener 36-13, but the next week struggled to defeat Fresno State 28-24 at home. Two lop-sided wins over Idaho (58-21) and Division I-A Portland State (41-0) and winning two road games, at Arizona (31-14) and UCLA at the Coliseum (31-30) bolstered the hopes for a third straight Pac-10 championship. Then came the Arizona State game at Autzen Stadium on October 19, 2002. The Ducks played well in the first half but came out flat in the third quarter and gave up 22 points to the Sun Devils. ASU quarterback Andrew Walter had a career day passing for 536 yards (31-53-2) and four touchdowns. Despite a valiant fourth quarter effort by the Ducks, the ASU game was a good indication that things had drastically changed for the fortunes of Oregon football. The Ducks would lose five out of the next six games. Not only did the Ducks lose, but lost badly. USC laughed its way out of Autzen Stadium with a 44-33 win. Washington State pulled away from Oregon in a 32-21 win in Pullman. Husky players danced on the "O" in the middle of Autzen Stadium after Washington pummeled Oregon 42-14 and Oregon State won bragging rights to the state with an easy 45-24 win. The Ducks did manage to overwhelm Stanford 41-14 at home, but perhaps the lowest point came in the lowly, poorly attended Seattle Bowl. The once mighty Ducks faced a team in Wake Forest with a roster of players, that many consider non Pac-10 quality. Oregon was plagued mistakes and appeared to be out of synch and condition against the Demon Deacons, losing 38-17.

What was the cause for the turn around from a powerhouse performance to an outhouse finish?

Several factors including assistant coaching changes, conditioning and senior class that failed to meet the challenges of leadership are reasons why the Ducks went from an 11-win team to a team that lost the second half of its season. Last season, the team seemed to run out of steam at halftime. For the year, the Ducks managed to score 18.3 points in the first half against opponents 13.0 points. However, in the second half during the season, the Ducks scored 11.7 points and gave up 14.6 points to their opponents. Most telling is that the Ducks scored more second half points in the first five games of the season but were outscored in the second half in the last seven games of the season. Consistently letting down in the second half of a football game raises question about conditioning. The Ducks were competitive in the first half of all their games, but like the crowd arriving late back into their seats after the third quarter kickoff, something was missing. Perhaps the play of the team mirrored the crowd's enthusiasm, but all season long, the Ducks and their fans seemed listless during the third quarter of play. Conditioning is a result of the effort put in by the team, and encouraged by the team leaders during the off-season. When the final gun sounded in Seattle to end the Seattle Bowl, the process of rebuilding Oregon football started again.

At one point, Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti felt his team had neutralized all the hard work of previous seasons and the team was at "ground zero." Spring workouts could not have come any quicker for the struggling Ducks.

"We have something to prove," Bellotti said. "We have to prove we can move the ball better offensively -- score points -- and we have to prove we can stop people from throwing the ball against us.

"But it's going to be very important to address our own self-image first. We have to find a way to feel good about ourselves. It starts with the way you practice, it starts with the respect of your teammates and it starts with the way you perform. It's very important to understand that we weren't happy with the way last season ended. Whether it's our psyche or our confidence, I think it was lacking the second half of last season. The best way I know to remedy that is to compete -- to come out every day ready to play and believe you have a chance to make a difference. So we're going to be very opportunistic in the spring in terms of giving people a chance and letting them compete and let the best man win."

So far this season the Ducks defeated Mississippi State at Starkville, 42-34 and then beat Nevada last week at Autzen Stadium 31-23.

What areas would Oregon need to improve for the 2003 season? The quarterback is the natural team leader and the Ducks do have plenty of talent but would one quarterback standout in the tradition of Joey Harrington and Akili Smith? Senior Jason Fife finished the season with respectable statistics (190-367-10, 2,752 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.) However, Fife's leadership was questioned when he was pulled from the Seattle Bowl in favor of sophomore Kellen Clemens. Clemens gained valuable experience last season (23-40-1, two touchdowns and one interception) but as the spring wore on he was not clearly ahead of Fife. Both had their moments and both struggled. Both show the ability to throw the long ball with good touch, but a tendency to scramble too quickly could spell trouble down the road.

The results so far have been interesting. The pair has combined for 35-for-57, 284.5 yards per game and seven touchdowns. Both have thrown touchdowns of over 30 yards and maybe the most impressive stat is that neither has thrown an interception.

True Freshman Johnny DuRocher from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington, is the No. 3 quarterback. DuRocher was the Washington Gatorade Player of the Year last season.

Gone from last fall's roster is runner back Onterrio Smith who left after his junior season for the NFL. Smith had back to back 1,000 yard rushing seasons for the Ducks, but for much of the second half of the season struggled with injuries. In 2001 the Ducks produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Smith and Maurice Morris. Last year however, the rushing game totaled only 2,159 yards as opposed to 2,516 yards in 2001. Sophomore Terrence Whitehead had brilliant moments in 2002 and finished the season with 272 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Ryan Shaw had 74 yards on 14 carries last season, but struggled with injuries. Shaw was more productive during the spring and may have breakaway speed. Junior Kenny Washington also appeared to be fully recovered from a broken leg and while Washington saw time on special teams last year he only had three carries for seven yards as a running back. Red shirt freshman Chris Vincent sat out last season after transferring from LSU. Vincent is physically the biggest running back and has shown strength in his running style.

Last weekend against Nevada, Vincent was unavailable, Whitehead suffered some bruised ribs and saw limited playing time. Shaw started the game but in the fourth quarter little used junior Kenny Washington came up big and rushed for a team leading 57 yards on nine carries. Washington said after the game that he wanted to prove he was as talented as the other Oregon running backs.

"I'm a junior and I've been here for a while," said Washington. "I saw some opportunities to establish myself."

The receiving corps was depleted from last season with the loss of Keenan Howry (now with Minnesota) and Jason Willis (now with Seattle) through graduation and tight end George Wrighster (now with Jacksonville) entered the NFL draft. . Senior Samie Parker, 5-11, 177 will be the principal target for either Fife or Clemens this fall. Bellotti has described Parker as that has learned how to control and use his speed. Parker had 49 catches last year for 724 yards and eight touchdowns. His longest was 80 yards against Idaho.

"He is a different speed than probably anybody on our team and anyone in the nation," said Bellotti.

Sophomore Demetrius Williams, 6-2, 180, starts opposite of Parker. Speed and agility are trademarks for Williams. He ran a 3.63-second, 20-yard shuttle and is considered one of all-time fastest receivers in Oregon history. Junior Kellen Taylor was a pleasant surprise during the spring and fall camp. Taylor, 6-1, 190 is a transfer from San Francisco City College. He was a 5-star rated wide receiver coming out of junior college by TheInsiders.com. Taylor plays hard on every down and catches everything thrown at him. Junior college transfer Marcus Maxwell, 6-3, 198 also had an impressive fall. Replacing Wrighster at tight end may not be as big a challenge that it might have been considering sophomore Tim Day has developed nicely. Day is a horse at 6-4, 268 and saw significant playing time last year. Day had three receptions for 18 yards and one touchdown in a backup role last season. Along with Day junior college transfer Eddie Whitaker, 6-4, 235 from LA Valley College, junior Ryan Loftin, 6-4, 244 and sophomore Nate LiaBraaten, 6-4, 245.

So far in the first two games, Parker has accounted for the lion share of the receptions and offense for the Ducks. The senior has 15 catches for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Williams has 10 catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

"When you take away Onterrio Smith, George Wrighster and Keenan Howry, you're talking about a tremendous amount of offense and points walking out the door," Bellotti admitted. "So the challenge will be greater to the offense to not only sustain but improve their performance."

The offensive line features a big, athletic line that is deep in experience. Second team All Pac-10 senior center Dan Weaver, 6-5, 282, is the leader. Juniors Adam Snyder, 6-6, 310, Nick Steitz, 6-4, 305, Robin Knebel, 6-6, 316 and big Mike DeLagrange, 6-6, 328 are big and experienced.

Defensively, starting defensive tackle/defensive end junior Igor Oshansky, 6-6, 305, was unavailable because of off-season surgery but came back strongly during fall camp and along with, the Ducks appear to be the strongest and biggest they have ever been on the defensive line at Oregon. Senior Jr. Siavii, 6-4, 323, is one of the biggest and strongest linemen ever to play at Oregon. Joining Siavii and Olshansky in the defensive tackle rotation is junior Robbie Valenzuala, 6-2, 290. Junior Devan Long, 6-4, 258, junior Chris Solomona, 6-5, 275, red shirt freshman Darius Sanders, 6-5, 265, and red shirt freshman Matt Toeaina, 6-2, 266 are the defensive ends. The Oregon defensive front line has limited the opposition running attack to 115 yards per game.

Another surprise is the return of senior defensive end Quinn Dorsey, 6-4, 270. Dorsey missed all last season because of injury, but he returned to the spring practice field in good shape and showing his maturity during practice. Dorsey will sit out four games because of a rules infraction.

Haloti Ngata, 6-4, 339 was injured in the Mississippi State game with a torn ACL in his left knee. Initially it was thought he could be lost for the season but there is indication that he may return to action later in the season.

Senior Kevin Mitchell, 5-11, 220, is the heart of the defense at his linebacker position. Mitchell recorded 255 total tackles last year. Junior Jerry Matson, 6-1, 224 has shown good speed and the ability to run down tailbacks and make interceptions. Sophomore Anthony Trucks, 6-1, 216 has some people thinking he will be in the NFL someday. Mitchell leads the team in tackles with 13 while Trucks has 10.

Senior safety Keith Lewis, 6-1, 200 considered going into the NFL draft but stayed at Oregon and Lewis who was one of the more vocal leaders of the Ducks last year, but has toned his rhetoric down this fall and wants to let his play show through.

To call the Oregon 2002 secondary bad, would not do justice to their struggle. Often playing two true freshmen as cornerbacks, the Ducks were often tested and failed. Fortunately Oregon was able to recruit Rodney Woods, 5-11, 178, from Fresno City College brings more size and speed. Woods will join Senior Steven Moore, 5-9, 179 at cornerback along with sophomores Marques Binns, 5-11, 164 and Aaron Gipson, 5-8, 179. Senior Sam Hughes, 5-10, 188 and junior Charles Favroth, 5-11, 197 also expect to contribute. The safeties (in addition to Lewis) include sophomore Justin Phinisee, 5-10, 195, sophomore Demetrius Spates, 5-11, 198, junior Marley Tucker, 6-0. 181, and Stephen Clayton, 5-11, 193. The entire defensive secondary is a step quicker this fall and a year more experienced than the squad that suffered through 2002.

Special teams are lead by All Pac-10 and 2nd Team All-American field goal kicker junior Jared Siegel. Siegel was as ambitious in the weight room as anyone on the team during the off season by setting records in his weight category. Siegel is 100 of 103 in extra points made and is 27 of 36 in his career field goals. He is 3-for-3 in field goals longer than 50 yards. Punting duties is handled by freshman Paul Martinez.

The Ducks know they have much to prove to the football world and are eager to reclaim the Pac-10 title they won in 2001. The sour taste of last season is a stimulus to approach the season as a cohesive team. Time will tell just how settled the considerable talent on the team has become and how determined they are to return to the elite of Division I football. The first two games have resulted in wins yet many questions still remain about the Ducks. Oregon has scored 73 points but have given up 57 points. All eyes in Oregon will be on the contest in Arizona next weekend to see if the Ducks are showing improvement.

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