Questions Surround Key Positions

At the beginning of spring practice, Head Coach Mike Bellotti stated that he was concerned about three key positions: quarterback, wide receiver and defensive line. After two and a half weeks, it appears the same questions and concerns linger – for a variety of reasons. Asked whether this spring had helped clarify those positions, Bellotti was blunt.

"No, absolutely not," he said. "I think they are still somewhat unsettled. I did see improvement yesterday: accuracy when throwing the football and catching the football, and attention to detail. We'll work on some of the footwork and mental skills. I thought our defensive line worked pretty hard."

With the departure of the Ducks' top two quarterbacks from last season, including soon-to-be NFL'er Dennis Dixon, a quarterback whose skill-set seemed divinely-chosen for Chip Kelly's spread option offense, the Oregon quarterback position was very much uncertain heading in to spring practice. Unfortunately, the future of the Ducks' quarterback position, assumed to be one that would produce a clear-cut starter by the beginning of the season, remains clouded, and Bellotti recently commented that a quarterback-plateau – a situation familiar to Duck fans – is not out of the question for the upcoming season.

"Who's going to be the quarterback, at this point, is up in the air." Bellotti said, adding later: "We'll see what happens, but I could see us playing more than one quarterback next year very easily."

Part of the reason for that uncertainty is that Nathan Costa, the number one quarterback in non-contact drills, will not participate in full-contact drills or scrimmages this spring, while the rest of the bunch – a group led by Sun Bowl savior Justin Roper – has failed to produce a candidate that separates himself from the pack. Although Costa and Roper appear to be the clear-cut 1-2 for the Ducks, BYU-transfer Cade Cooper has moved ahead of Cody Kempt and the freshmen, and has his eye set on getting into the mix.

"I think Cade (Cooper) is getting better," said Bellotti. "I think he has probably improved from our first practice to (Tuesday's) practice as much or more than any quarterback we've got. Athletically, he still needs to step it up. He's not 100% healthy, but he's making better choices, showing a better rhythm and tempo with the offense and I'm pleased. I think he's put himself in position to be a factor."

The wide receiver position has seen inconsistent play from top to bottom this spring. Go-to-guy Jaison Williams, not-so-playfully nicknamed "50-50" by some Duck fans last season to indicate the chances of his catching a pass, has struggled catching the ball, while also failing to go get the ball in come-back routes. Jamere Holland, Drew Davis and Terence Scott have all shown flashes of brilliance, but none of the three have been consistent enough to firmly grip a starting spot.

The Ducks have perennially been one of the top offenses in the Pac-10, a fact that has defined Oregon as an offensive juggernaut first, and a defensive team second over the past decade. Asked whether that trend could end this season, defensive line coach Michael Gray was confident.

"I think so, because we lost a lot of starters on the offensive side of the ball," he explained. "Sometimes it's easy to play defense when you got a 30-point lead. People think that's a joke, but it's not. When you got an offense that can score points like that you don't have to pin your ears back defensively and you can afford to make a couple mistakes. When you don't have the offensive guys, you don't know how many points they are going to score and you can't give up any easy plays."

Despite the high expectations of next year's defense, this spring the Ducks have struggled to dominate to the degree they had hoped, especially against the running game, where they gave up several 10+ yard carries during the second scrimmage. Minor injuries have plagued the defense this spring, and Tuesday's confirmation that Franz Dorsainvil had quit the team certainly didn't help the current lack of depth on the defensive line.

The losses of Blake Ferras, Tonio Celotto, Will Tukuafu and Dorsainvil have made it difficult for this group to build any chemistry; however defensive line coach Michael Gray feels that there is a silver lining to the injuries – as long as it's not fall.

"It's just spring time," Gray said. "I got a couple more guys that will be coming in during the fall. Some of the young guys are getting some reps – Michael Speed and Terrell Turner – so it's a good chance for the young guys to show what they can do this spring."

One of the guys coming in this fall is five-star junior college transfer Justin Thompson, an athlete that Gray is excited about.

"I think he's going to be an immediate factor," Gray said. "It's good to get another bigger guy. He's very athletic, he has played a lot of football and he brings some of the skills to the table that some of the other tackles don't have."

Despite the injury concerns, confidence remains high among the defensive unit.

"I think the guys up front are solid, our ‘backers are coming along and our secondary is really strong, so it's going to be tough for teams to put a lot of points up on us. If we all come together, and I think we bought into what we do defensively last season, we're going to continue to get better.

The Ducks have until fall to get the defense healthy, and once that happens, it could be a group whose talent is rivaled only by the Gang Green days.


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