Ducks 2004, a look ahead.

Although a December 31 date with Minnesota still looms ahead for the 2003 Oregon Ducks football team, not to mention a recruiting season with important holes to fill, it's never too early to start thinking about next year.

The good news is that Oregon will return both an offense and defense with many of its key players from season year remaining. Of course there's no doubt the team will miss receiver Samie Parker, linebacker Kevin Mitchell, offensive linemen Dan Weaver and Joey Forster, defensive Quinn Dorsey and Junior Siavii, safety Keith Lewis, fullback Matt Floberg, cornerback Steven Moore and quarterback Jason Fife. But an even more impressive list of players is returning.

By the end of this regular season, quarterback Kellen Clemens established himself for the first time as the Ducks' undisputed and clear starter. Some argued this might have happened earlier had Clemens not been taken out so often for Jason Fife, but that's a whole other story. Regardless, that scrappy, lovable hick from Burns, Oregon played the best ball of his career in the last three games. It's no coincidence that's when the Ducks started winning again.

At receiver everybody assumed that Samie Parker would contribute much more than any of his teammates at the position in 2003. Not so. Demetrius Williams had 886 receiving yards, just two yards short of Parker's 888. Tim Day and Marcus Maxwell showed real promise, and talented young players like Keith Allen and Brian Paysinger are already on board for the future, as is the verbally-committed James Harris of Oakmont HS in Roseville, California.

There is some need at running back, however. Although it's impossible to discount the offensive line's sub-par run blocking as a factor during Oregon's mid-season losing streak, it is also probably safe to assume that the team does not have a tailback on its current roster with the same talent as anyone from that unprecedented streak recent streak of excellent runners: Saladin McCullough, Reuben Droughns, Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith. Only freshman Chris Vincent seems to have truly untapped potential. (Incidentally, what happened to that guy? The first game against Mississippi State he looked like the clearly best Oregon back. By midseason he was getting pummeled every time he carried the ball and by season's end he wasn't playing at all.) Terrence Whitehead and Ryan Shaw seem equivalent to the solid but not spectacular backs that usually have played second string, such as Allen Admundson or Darien Latimer. One can only hope that one of this year's sought-after potential recruits, such as Marshawn Lynch of Oakland Technical High School winds up signing with the Ducks. After all, how much better might we have been if either of the last two recruiting seasons' near misses, Herschel Dennis (USC) or Lynell Hamilton (San Diego State), had wound up in green and yellow? (Or perhaps I say, "thunder" and "lightning".)

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(PHOTO RIGHT) Terrence Whitehead (GettyImages/ Doug Benc)

The offensive line could use some more help, especially with Weaver and Forster moving on. Luckily Mike Bellotti and his staff already have five "big uglies", as Keith Jackson calls them, committed for next year.

On the defensive line, you've got to like our chances with a healthy Haloti Ngata rejoining Igor Oloshanski and Devan Long to wreak havoc. And we mustn't forget returners like Chris Solomona, Robby Valenzuela and Matt Toeaina. Add to that four-star rated defensive tackle David Faaeteete from Medford, and the potential for a special Gang Green defensive line is there.

Kevin Mitchell's presence at linebacker will be missed, but the core here also remains strong. Jerry Matson, Reggie Kearney and others are sure to play well next fall.

And the defensive backfield seems to finally be a talented, proven bunch after a year and a half of being downright bad at times, not to mention a major factor in the lopsided losses Oregon suffered both this year and last (especially last year). Frequent cornerback starters Rodney Woods, Justin Phinisee and Aaron Gipson all returning. Younger players like freshman Ryan Gilliam (who famously cancelled his verbal commitment last year to hometown team Florida State in order to come to Eugene) also figure to pick up the slack. Although all-conference safety Keith Lewis is gone (and luckily his pre-game mouthing off, thankfully), four-star rated safety Jackie Bates (another De La Salle player) and perhaps some other highly regarded recruits will be waiting in the wings.

Don't forget that Oregon is also lucky to be able to retain its superb kicker, Jared Siegel, back for a senior campaign in 2004. Paul Martinez was a solid if not spectacular punter this year, but he was only a freshman. We just might see significant improvement on that 37.4-yard average.

Perhaps most importantly of all, this week head coach Mike Bellotti also signed a contract extension that keeps him here—hypothetically, at least—through 2008. You don't have to be a biased Duck fan to know that Oregon is fortunate to have one of the best coaches in all of college football working its sidelines. With the NFL an admitted interest down the road, Bellotti won't stay forever, so we should enjoy his tenure while we can.

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(PHOTO LEFT) Bellotti leads Ducks onto the field. (GettyImages/Otto Greule Jr)

Still, when the Webfeet were being blown out by WSU, ASU and UW earlier this year, some wondered if it was time for one or both of his main coordinators to go after this season. But by Civil War time both Andy Ludwig's offense and Nick Aliotti's defense were looking much better, enough for both to warrant a vote of confidence from Bellotti—that is, if it hadn't already come when the chips were down. Credit Mike for taking the long view during all those losses and having faith in his staff.

No one is promising a spot in the BCS for next season. After the embarrassing defeats Oregon suffered this year, most Duck fans seem merely cautiously optimistic about the team's improving fortunes continuing to rise. Despite looking abysmal at times, we beat Michigan early on and we finished strong, including the coveted Civil War victory over those nasty, arrogant Beavers. The bowl game seems challenging but winnable for sure. Every program has its ups and downs, even the perennial winners. After two seasons of being good but not great, or great one moment but terrible the next, it's beginning to look like Oregon's program may be on the rise once more.

Now if we could only have last year's uniforms back!


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