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July 28, 2009
THE SCHEME: The Ducks operate from what they call the "spread option," a system that has produced more than 38 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Ducks have focused primarily on running under Chip Kelly, who had been coordinator before being promoted to coach in the offseason, but likely will look to pass more this season.
STAR POWER: Injuries thrust QB Jeremiah Masoli into the starting lineup early last season. Masoli struggled in the passing game most of the season, then averaged more than 250 yards, with six touchdowns and just one interception, in the final three games. That streak, and Masoli's excellent running ability (he rushed for 718 yards), raises hopes that this could be a huge year for the Oregon quarterback.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Oregon likes to use two running backs, and last season it had two backs rush for more than 1,000 yards. The Ducks could do it again this season with redshirt freshman LaMichael James, a small but elusive runner who will be a nice complement to the powerful LeGarrette Blount.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Although Jamere Holland had only four catches last season, the lightning-fast wide receiver had a tremendous spring, which hinted that a breakout year may be in store. Holland has had injury issues, but he is healthy now and is comfortable in the offense. And did we mention he's very, very fast?
STRONGEST AREA: The Ducks are so stocked at quarterback that former starter Justin Roper transferred to Montana, but he won't be missed. Masoli is entrenched as the starter, and Nate Costa, a starter before felled by knee injuries, is his backup. Highly regarded sophomore Darron Thomas, who threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns against Boise State last year, is the quarterback of the future.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Six players - either starters or key backups - were lost from last year's dominant line. C Max Unger and T Fenuki Tupou, a couple of All-Pac-10 selections who were taken in the NFL draft, are among the departed. Obviously, there are big shoes to fill up front. Oregon was second in the nation in rushing last season, so there's an urgency.
THE SCHEME: The Ducks have a base 4-3 defense, but they will mix in odd fronts to give opponents a different look, depending on the situation.
STAR POWER: Though slowed by injuries much of last season, CB Walter Thurmond III still managed to grab five interceptions, one of which he returned 40 yards for a touchdown against Oregon State. Thurmond, who is also a big-play threat on special teams, doesn't shy from contact, either. He posted 66 tackles a year ago, including 10 against California.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Junior LB Bryson Littlejohn earned junior college All-America honors last season and followed that up by turning heads during Oregon's spring practice. He's not listed as a starter yet, but he has played so well in practice that he will find his way onto the field.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: It's not that E Will Tukuafu has been disappointing. After all, last season he had 7.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. It's just that with three new starters on the line, Tukuafu will be counted on to produce even more. And he should be able to.
STRONGEST AREA: The Ducks are loaded at linebacker, with seven guys coaches feel are good enough to start. Topping the depth chart are returning starters Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, who combined for more than 160 tackles in '08. Sophomore Eddie Pleasant has drawn raves, and Littlejohn's arrival is a bonus.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Nick Reed, who led the Ducks in sacks in each of the past two seasons, is gone. He and defensive tackle Ra'Shon Harris were taken in the NFL draft. They were among three starters lost from the line. Tukuafu is back, so one end spot is secure. But the other spots up front will be filled by new starters who combined for fewer than 20 tackles and no sacks last season.
Thurmond averaged more than 25 yards on 21 kickoff returns last season, so that area is in good hands. He could return punts, too. The kicking game is iffy, though. K Morgan Flint and P Tim Taylor saw limited action last season and face challenges from incoming freshmen Jackson Rice and Mike Bowlin. The kick-coverage unit should be solid again, but the punt coverage was shoddy last season and must improve.
After 15 years in which he posted 116 victories and established himself as Oregon's most successful coach, Mike Bellotti stepped aside. If Kelly proves as successful as a head coach as he was an offensive coordinator, the Ducks will continue to be a force in the Pac-10. In two seasons as coordinator at Oregon, Kelly led offenses that ranked among the nation's top 10 and averaged more than 460 yards per game. He's aided by Steve Greatwood, who ranks among the nation's top line coaches. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is a 31-year coaching veteran who was instrumental in assembling the Ducks' "Gang Green" defense of the '90s. But last year's defensive unit had some problems and allowed more than 30 points to five opponents.
Some teams like to start with a few easy opponents and work up to the difficult part of the schedule. Not Oregon. The Ducks open on a Thursday night against Boise State and follow with Purdue and Utah before opening Pac-10 play against California. At least four of their first five games are in Eugene. In fact, the Ducks also play at home against California, USC and archrival Oregon State, arguably their chief rivals in the Pac-10 race this season. The Ducks look to have a soft three-game stretch after playing California and before USC. In that span, they face Washington State, UCLA and Washington, which were a combined 6-31 in '08.
The Ducks have so much talent at the skill positions that there is reason to be optimistic for Kelly's first year at the helm. But that optimism should come with a full measure of caution. The uncertainty and inexperience in the offensive and defensive lines raises doubt whether Oregon can seriously contend for the Pac-10 championship. If the new starters up front perform at a high level, the Ducks could jell and become a major factor in the race. But this is a young team. In all likelihood, they're a year away from being of championship caliber.