What was the cause for the turnaround from a powerhouse performance to an outhouse finish?
Several factors, including assistant coaching changes, conditioning and a 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 the opponents 13.0 points. However, in the second half, the Ducks averaged 11.7 points and gave up 14.6 points. 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 in 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 forth by the team and the encouragement 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 everyday 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."
What areas would Oregon need to improve going into the 2003 season? The quarterback is the natural team leader and the Ducks do have plenty of talent but would one quarterback stand out 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. Although both show the ability to throw the long ball with good touch, a tendency to scramble too quickly could spell trouble down the road. Fall camp failed to shed anymore light on which player was separating himself in the competition.
They are so close in fact that Bellotti told the Eugene Register-Guard, "We're going to initially be using a two-quarterback system. We're going to do what gives us the best opportunity for success, and right now we feel it's that type of system."
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 running back Onterrio Smith who jumped to the NFL after his junior season. 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. Redshirt 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. On Monday, August 25, 2003, Bellotti settled who would be the starting running back against Mississippi State by naming Whitehead.
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) entering 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 a player that has learned not only how to use his speed but how to control it. "He is a different speed than probably anybody on our team and anyone in the nation," said Bellotti. Parker had 49 catches last year for 724 yards and eight touchdowns. His longest was 80 yards against Idaho. Sophomore Demetrius Williams, 6-2, 180, will start opposite Parker. Speed and agility are trademarks of Williams. He ran a 3.63-second 20-yard shuttle and is considered one of the all-time fastest receivers in Oregon history. Junior Kellen Taylor has been a pleasant surprise during the spring and fall camp. Taylor, 6-1, 190, is a transfer from San Francisco City College. He was rated a 5-star wide receiver by TheInsiders.com coming out of junior college. Taylor plays hard on every down and catches everything thrown his way. Replacing Wrighster at tight end, due to the emergence of sophomore Tim Day, may not be as big a challenge as originally thought. Day is a horse at 6-4, 268 and saw significant playing time last year, recording three receptions for 18 yards and one touchdown in a backup role. Along with Day, Oregon has 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.
"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 for the offense to not only sustain but improve their performance."
The offensive line features a big, athletic group that is deep in experience. Joining second-team All Pac-10 senior center Dan Weaver, 6-5, 282, is fellow senior and four year letterman Joey Forster, 6-4, 285, juniors Adam Snyder, 6-6, 310, Nick Steitz, 6-4, 305, Robin Knebel, 6-6, 316 and big Mike DeLagrange, 6-6, 328.
Defensively, starting defensive tackle/defensive end junior Igor Oshansky, 6-6, 305, was unavailable because of off-season surgery but came back strong during fall camp. With he and sophomore Haloti Ngata, 6-4, 339, the Ducks appear to be the strongest and biggest they have ever been on the defensive line at Oregon. Ngata is simply unstoppable by the offensive linemen in either one-on-one drills or during scrimmages. Ngata promises to be a feature player whenever the Ducks take the field this season. Another surprise is the return of senior defensive end Quinn Dorsey, 6-4, 270. Dorsey missed all of last season because of injury, but returned to the spring practice field in good shape and showing maturity. Dorsey will sit out four games because of a rules infraction. Junior defensive tackle Robbie Valenzuala, 6-2, 290, and senior defensive tackle Junior Siavii, 6-4, 323, add size, strength and experience to an improved defensive front. Redshirt freshman Darius Sanders, 6-5, 165, and junior Chris Solomona, 6-5, 275, also figure in at defensive end. Redshirt freshman Matt Toeaina, 6-2, 266, came to Oregon as a fullback, but was moved to defensive end during the spring.
Senior Kevin Mitchell, 5-11, 220, is the heart of the defense at his linebacker position. Mitchell recorded 114 total tackles last year. Junior Jerry Matson, 6-1, 224, has shown good speed and the ability to run down tailbacks and make interceptions. Senior safety Keith Lewis, 6-1, 200, considered going into the NFL draft but decided to stay put. Lewis, who was one of the more vocal leaders of the Ducks last year, has toned his rhetoric down this fall and wants to let his play show through.
Sophomore defensive end Devan Long, 6-4, 258, was seriously injured in a tragic non-football related incident prior to the start of spring workouts. Long was assaulted and had to spend time recovering from his injuries. The tragedy worsened because the perpetrator of the assault (a non-football player student) committed suicide upon facing possible incarceration because of the assault on Long. Long has vowed to move on from the incident.
To call the Oregon 2002 secondary bad, would not do justice to their struggle. Often playing two true freshmen at cornerback, the Ducks were often tested and failed. Fortunately, Oregon was able to recruit Rodney Woods, 5-11, 178, from Fresno City College. Woods, who will bring more size and speed, 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 and a year more experienced than the squad that suffered through 2002.
The special teams are lead by All Pac-10 and 2nd Team All-American field goal kicker Jared Siegel, just a junior. Siegel, as ambitious in the weight room as anyone on the team during the off-season, set records in his weight category. Siegel has made 100 of 103 extra points attempts and has made 27 of 36 career field goals attempts. He is 3-for-3 in field goals longer than 50 yards. Punting duties will be 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.