What We Know About The Ducks

When the Oregon Ducks entered fall camp two weeks ago, Mike Bellotti thought his team had great potential but that proof would be demanded upon the practice field. Bellotti and his staff have found out that the Duck offense is very good, while the Duck defense is improving.

Oregon's offense blazed in week 2 of fall camp, as the Duck quarterbacks found their range and consistently hit targets. The Ducks' top three quarterbacks, Dennis Dixon, Brady Leaf and Nathan Costa have all caught offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's attention. When Kelly came to Oregon last spring his primary mission was to cut down on the number of turnovers Oregon had been committing. Kelly set out to make the task a "standard of excellence." Ball security is a daily commitment -- running backs tucking the ball in properly, receivers not tipping the ball up in the air and quarterbacks throwing the ball into better, safer positions for the receivers to make a catch.

"Dennis, Brady and Nate have stepped up their game," Kelly said of the quarterback trio. "I've been impressed with all three of them."

Dixon is the starter, and just watching him during practice makes it easy to understand why. It is nearly impossible for defensive linemen to catch him in the back field, and if the defense is not totally on guard Dixon can take off for long runs as demonstrated early in camp when he sprinted for a 70-yard touchdown. The time off Dixon took to play baseball this summer appears to have helped him regain some confidence that may have been lost, and it also may have helped him mature somewhat in terms of the demands of leadership. After making the big run, Dixon displayed more emotion than onlookers have been accustomed to seeing from him. He pointed the ball straight up in the air as he ran across the goal line.

He wasn't mocking anyone; he was simply ecstatic over the play. Sometimes the leader has to be demonstrative, and thinking back to last season seldom did fans ever see any emotion coming from No. 10.

While the quarterbacks have been doing their part of getting the ball into better spots for the receivers to make the grab, the receiving corps has done a better job of holding onto the ball once it hits them in the hands. Again, like last year, the Ducks have a group of tall, physical athletes that have speed. What the coaches hope will happen is that the receivers will do a better job of separating from defenders and holding onto the ball once they touch it. Jaison Williams is obviously the go-to guy, but a number of other receivers could be very surprising this season including tight end Ed Dickson, senior Cameron Colvin and an intriguing player in Derrick Jones. Jones was thought to be in the coach's doghouse for missing the summer workouts. However, he has shown his conditioning is good and his ability to do something spectacular with the ball after catching it. Bellotti says that Jones has been making tremendous strides during the fall camp and believes if the talented receiver can stay healthy that he'll be a difference maker this fall.

The first week of camp gave a good preview of a potent running game led by the team's best players, Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson. While Stewart was held out of practice sessions because of sore ankles, he is back in pads and in the rotation. Bellotti feels that Johnson is one of the most improved players on the team.

All of the success though is because of an experienced and cohesive offensive line. Last spring three of the starters, Geoff Schwartz, 6-7, 335, Max Unger, 6-5, 300 and Josh Tschirgi, 6-4, 310, missed all or most of the workouts in April. While the three were out of action, backups gained valuable practice opportunities. Now fully healthy, the trio of upperclassmen have made a dramatic impact on the offense.

"We didn't have Geoff Schwartz, Max Unger for the spring and lost (Josh) Tschirgi for most of the spring," commented Kelly of the offensive line. "So those young guys got a chance to get a lot of reps, but getting those three older guys back really solidifies it for us."

Mark Lewis, 6-4, 308, and Fenuki Tupou, 6-6, 322, round out the starting line. Tupou has drawn special praise from Bellotti for his improvement.

On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest news last week was when Bellotti announced that defensive end Victor Filipe had quit the team for personal reasons. Possibly Filipe may try to find another program before school starts in order to use his final year of eligibility. However, it was clear that one of the reasons for Filipe's departure was the impressive play of Will Tukuafu, a junior college transfer that enrolled in school last winter and was available for spring football. Tukuafu is a physical specimen and, along with veteran Nick Reed and red shirt freshman Brandon Bair, give the Ducks a solid pass rush off the end. Newcomer Kenny Rowe has also been impressive in workouts and should see playing time when the season starts. The defensive tackles are David Faaeteete, 6-2, 310, Michael Speed, 6-5, 258, with Cole Linehan, 6-4, 295 and Sonny Harris, 6-5, 321 rotating in. A freshman that has shown great strength and can play at either tackle or end is Tonio Celotto. Celotto is still learning some of the tricks of the trade but is very quick and is one of the strongest athletes on the roster.

The first string linebackers are John Bacon (middle,) Kwame Agyemon, (inside) and Jerome Boyd (outside.) Senior A.J. Tuitele should work his way back into the line up once he is free of a hamstring problem. Incoming freshmen Terrell Turner, Casey Matthews and Terrance Pritchett have shown promise along with sophomore Kevin Garrett.

Patrick Chung, Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond have led the defensive backfield in practice. All are showing their experience. Willie Glasper has also made significant progress along with rover Marvin Johnson. T.J. Ward and Chad Peppars have been sporadically sidelined with injuries but a junior, Caleb Tommasini, sophomore Titus Jackson and three freshmen, Anthony Gildon, Talmadge Jackson and Todd Doxey are making improvements. The Ducks may have dodged a major bullet when Matthew Harper's knee injury turned out to be less severe than initially thought.

On special teams, Josh Syria has a booming leg. Place kicking chores are split between David Padilla kicking field goals and Matt Evanson taking care of kickoffs. The competition is still going on for punt returner.

Scrimmage on Saturday was closed to the public and media, but a media release from the athletic department reported that Padilla had a successful field goal attempt of 51 yards. The Duck quarterbacks were 14-for-26, 227 yards and two touchdowns.

The biggest question regarding the team is on defense, particularly can it stop the run. In the scrimmage held at the Nike Complex in Beaverton on Saturday, the Ducks seemed to have found some solutions in slowing down the run. The offense rushed for 145 yards on 41 attempts. Of course, Stewart was held out of the scrimmage and Johnson was in only two series. Still though, Remene Alston and Andre Crenshaw are Pac-10 quality backs so the defense should feel good about their effort.

The good news from the scrimmage, according to the media release was that there were no turnovers by the offense and no injuries suffered.

Kelly is pleased with the offense to this point and is impressed most by the approach the players take to practice and wanting to get better every day.

"They're on track," remarked Kelly of the offense. "They've impressed me in terms of the time they spent working real hard this summer on their own. They're really ahead of where I anticipated them being."

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