Oregon's Talented Depth Gaining Experience

In years past, if the Ducks headed north to Seattle with four major injuries depleting the roster, the Oregon-Washington game would have been a nightmare waiting to happen. That was then and this is now because of Oregon's recruiting, Duck fans can switch on the 4:30 game carried on FSN and not be surprised to see more of the same product they've been watching all season long.

There was a price paid for the 53-7 victory over Washington State last week -- wide Cameron Colvin broke his ankle and running back Jeremiah Johnson tore knee ligaments and both are lost for the year. Coupled with the season ending injury to wide receiver Brian Paysinger and the near-season ending injury to linebacker A.J. Tuitele, the Ducks are down four major playmakers who would have made major contributions to Oregon's efforts against the Huskies this week.

"When you get hit at that position it tests your mettle a little bit; we need somebody to step up for Jeremiah," admitted Mike Bellotti of the injury status. "We had somebody step in for A.J. already and hopefully we'll get A.J. back (by the end of the season), but 10 or 15 years ago those would have been catastrophic injuries."

The situation today is much different than in 1992. Oregon's recruiting along with the entire Oregon program has taken such a giant leap forward, it's nearly impossible to imagine the differences between now and '92. Back 15 years ago, before the 85-scholarship limitation was in effect, had the Ducks suffered that many injuries, the back up players who would have been called on to fill in probably weren't physically prepared to play Pac-10 football. That's not the case now.

Take a look at the receiver position. Paysinger started the year off showing what threat he could be by breaking away for an 80-yard touchdown reception against Michigan at Michigan Stadium as the Ducks beat the Wolverines, 39-7. Paysinger ended up the leading receiver for the game grabbing four balls for 97 yards. Two weeks later during practice Paysinger was lost for the year. Paysinger, throughout his career at Oregon has always been known as a hard worker in practice and had developed into a big weapon for the Ducks

In steps Cameron Colvin, the former 5-star high school receiver who picked Oregon over offers from Florida State, Miami (Fla.) Michigan and USC, worked very hard during the off season this summer to make a significant contribution to the 2007 Ducks. On the first play, in the first game he started this year against Stanford, Colvin hauled in a Dennis Dixon-strike of 71 yards for a touchdown. Colvin had 136 yards on eight catches against the Cardinal that night in Oregon's 55-31 win. The following week against California, Colvin had seven catches for 74 yards including a long touchdown reception of 43 yards in the Ducks' 31-24 loss. Unfortunately, disaster struck again against Washington State early in the first quarter when Colvin broke his ankle. Who can the Ducks call on now to fill in at wide receiver?

"Those guys stepping in now have already made contributions and are being asked to make more," said Bellotti of the players who will be filling in for the injured athletes. "We've had 10 true freshmen play (at various positions) this year, which is the most in my tenure here."

So who will step up now at wide receiver? For starters there is sophomore Derrick Jones, the 4-star high school receiver who already has 11 catches for 140 yards including a 61-yard touchdown catch against Michigan. Jones has had Duck fans drooling in anticipation for the last couple of years. Jones trek to Oregon came through USC, where the speedster initially signed a letter of intent but was unable to enroll. Jones was very highly recruited out of high school having offers from Arizona State, Florida State, Oklahoma and Texas along with Oregon.

Also on the depth chart is true freshman Aaron Pflugrad, whose dad, Robin is Oregon's receiver coach. Pflugrad seems to be the answer to one of the most common question in the Northwest, who is going to be the next Mike Haas? Pflugrad, like the great former Oregon State receiver, is a product of Northwest high schools, first at Pullman High School in Pullman, Washington then at Sheldon High in Eugene. He seems to catch everything thrown his way. Other football programs may have lost track of Pflugrad because his transfer from Pullman to Sheldon, but not Dennis Erickson and Arizona State who extended Pflugrad an offer as did Mike Riley and Oregon State. So far this season Pflugrad has five catches for 49 yards including a 22-yard touchdown reception against WSU.

The Ducks have even more depth receiver besides Jones and Pflugrad. Freshman wide receiver Drew Davis is listed behind starter Garren Strong. Davis was a 4-star receiver in high school and picked Oregon over offers from Cal, UCLA and Washington. Davis has appeared in five games this season and has a catch for seven yards. Another true freshman who has been playing and catching passes is tight end Malachi Lewis. Lewis is a gifted athlete who started off fall camp playing running back and was switched to tight end when junior Ryan Keeling broke his hand just before the season started. Lewis was rated 4-stars out of high school and also played linebacker. He picked Oregon over offers from Arizona State, Cal, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Mississippi and UCLA. This season he has played mostly on special teams but last week he recorded his first two receptions for 21 yards with a long of 18.

"Anybody that we recruit obviously, we hope that they are very sought after and we think they have the ability to play early and contribute very quickly in their career," Bellotti said.

Johnson's injury is significant because of his ability to show a different style of running than starter Jonathan Stewart. Stewart is the Pac-10's second leading ground gainer at 114.8 yards per game. Stewart's average dropped from 124 yards because he only played the first half and the first series of the third quarter against WSU picking up 66 yards on 13 carries. Johnson was well on his way to a big day against the Cougars gaining 63 yards on four carries including touchdown runs of 42 and 18 yards. Andre Crenshaw came in for Johnson and had 24 yards on nine carries. Crenshaw has 33 carries for the season for 156 yards, one touchdown and a long run of 39 yards. Remene Alston, who has 21 carries for 38 yards, moves up the No. 3 back.

Last week, senior Kwame Agyeman replaced Tuitele. Sophomore Kevin Garrett and freshman Casey Matthews saw increased playing time. Agyeman responded by recording four tackles including one for loss. Garrett was in on three assisted tackles and Matthews had a solo tackle and assist as the Duck defense held WSU to 314 yards and seven points.

"Athletes coming out of high school are bigger, stronger and faster now and may not need a couple years in the program to grow, mature and get the strength and speed necessary to play," cited Bellotti. "I'm pleased that they are capable and it points to the fact that we've been recruiting the right people."

Bellotti mentioned in his media conference on Tuesday that it is possible that junior transfer wide receiver Terence Scott and Eddie Pleasant may be utilized this season thereby burning up the redshirt year. Additionally, the Ducks are exploring all options in seeking a medical redshirt for Colvin. Colvin is scheduled for surgery on Thursday and is a true senior this year but has not utilized a redshirt season.

While the Ducks are concerned about the injuries, the blow is somewhat softened because of the recruiting efforts over the last couple of seasons. Bellotti should be proud of the way his coaching staff has been able to go out and lure the kind of players who are building a team that is now ranked 10th in the BCS standings. Many think that Oregon can go very high in the BCS rankings and despite losing four key players to injury, the performance the Ducks put out on the field may not drop off as much as some might imagine.

Kickoff for the contest this Saturday is at 4:30 p.m. and the game will be carried live on FSN.

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