High Expectations Greet Ducks As Spring Football Drills Open Monday
April 1, 2001
EUGENE - Retooling one of the most prolific special teams components in the country, replacing seven defensive starters as well as living up to some of the program's highest pre-season expectations in the program's history are among the items Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti will be looking to address as he greets his team for the start of 15 spring workouts Monday afternoon.
The Ducks finished last year ranked seventh in the county (Associated Press) with a 10-2 record - both firsts in the 105 years of the program's history - after downing Texas 35-30 in the Culligan Holiday Bowl. A return virtually intact of one of the top offensive attacks in the Pac-10, as well as one of the top quarterbacks in the country, has the defending conference co-champions excited to begin the process of replacing the pieces needed to complete some unfinished business next fall.
Oregon led the Pac-10 race for the Rose Bowl from the outset last year before watching their chance for an outright title slip through their fingers with a 23-13 setback at Oregon State in the regular-season finale. Not only is it expected to return to a position of contention for league honors come September, some prognosticators already have pegged the Ducks to be among the best teams in the country in 2001.
'I don't worry very much about what people say in the early-season or pre-season polls,' Bellotti admitted. 'The only poll I'm interested in is the final one.
'I do think that it's exciting for athletes, our boosters and alumni that Oregon is mentioned with the best programs in the nation, and I certainly think we deserve to be there because we've earned that right. But I think you have to earn it every year. Pre-season publications are just that. It gives us some positive fuel for the fire but it's something that you've got to live up to, and you've got to do it every Saturday in the fall when it counts.'
Before the Ducks are ready to assume the roles of contenders on the conference or national levels, Bellotti knows he will have to find replacements for his team's vacancies at punter and placekicker, a host of defensive questions which includes only one returning starter among that platoon's front seven, as well as three openings along with a number of reserves on offense.
Bellotti's seventh Oregon spring will be highlighted by the return of 31 lettermen, including eight offensive starters and four on defense.
Quarterback Joey Harrington prepares for his final collegiate campaign after leading the Pac-10 in total offense (257.6 avg.), passing yards (247.3 avg.) and touchdown passes (22) as a junior. In fact, only Danny O'Neil (1993) and Bill Musgrave (1989) were able to put together better numbers as underclassmen in school history than last year's second-team all-league pick. That's not to mention Harrington's knack for winning games, which includes a 14-2 career record as a starter.
Also returning on offense is 1,000-yard rusher Maurice Morris, wide receiver Keenan Howry, who is on pace to become the program's career receiving leader, tight end Justin Peelle, as well as a trio of starters along the offensive line in Jim Adams, Joey Forster and Ryan Schmid.
But Bellotti's attention is likely to be focused elsewhere.
'The number one priority this spring is the kicking game because we will have a new punter, three new people competing for the placekicking job, a new special teams coordinator, a new long snapper - so obiviously I have huge concerns at this point about the traditional excellence of our kicking game,' Bellotti emphasized. 'We'll spend more time there than we ever have in the spring.'
Junior college transfer Jose Arroyo will be given a long look at punter, while freshman Jared Siegel and juniors Navid Niakan and David Rosenberg have never attempted a PAT or field goal in a Division I game. Adding to the Ducks' special teams newcomers will be coordinator Robin Ross, who returned to the program following two years as linebackers coach with the NFL's Oakland Raiders after two years as a defensive aide at Oregon in 1997 and `98.
The Ducks led the conference in kickoff returns, kickoff coverage and net punting a year ago.
'The second major question is our defense,' Bellotti added. 'We lost some key people there. We need to create opportunities to discover who are going to be players there, especially at the linebacker positions. Since there will be no new candidates at those spots arriving in the fall, the young men we believe will play for us against Wisconsin (Sept. 1) are here right now. So we have to identify them and make them better.'
Vying to fill the three linebackers slots will be no fewer than 10 candidates, with Garret Graham, Wesly Mallard and Kevin Mitchell deemed to be the most experienced, John Harris and Ryan Loftin possibly the most intriguing due to an absence from the game of at least one year, and junior college transfer David Martin the only one new to the program.
Defensive end Seth McEwen returns as the lone starter along the defensive line, although Zack Freiter started the final four games at tackle and will be counted on as one of the team's defensive mainstays. It is hoped that6-foot-6, 287-pound redshirt freshman Igor Olshansky will be ready to assume the other spot at tackle.
Attracting some of the most attention from a defensive standpoint could be Keith Lewis, with the collegiate newcomer drawing raves as a special teams phenom last season. This spring's goal will be to find the position Lewis is best suited for on an 'every-down basis', with free safety and rover looming as his best bets.
Two returning starters as well as several other players will likely miss all or parts of spring workouts due to injuries, which will open the door for additional prospects to make their marks. The injured casualties include starting fullback Josh Line (shoulder) and free safety Rasuli Webster (foot), who ranks as the team's top returning tackler with 59 stops. The remaining players limited by injuries include Harris (knee), offensive linemen Corey Chambers (shoulder) and Josh Jones (ankle), fullback Adam Kennybrew (foot), and wide receiver Samie Parker (collarbone).
Oregon is slated to practice every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for the next four weeks while alternating Saturday, Friday and Saturday three of the four weekends and practicing only three days during week No. 3. Drills conclude Saturday, April 28, with the Spring Game at Hillsboro Stadium in the Portland area.