Ducks Open Spring Football Drills Tuesday
March 28, 2002
EUGENE - Developing a replacement for one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history as well as sifting through a group of relatively untested prospects at cornerback will be among the top priorities for head football coach Mike Bellotti when the University of Oregon opens spring practice Tuesday, April 2, in Eugene.
The two-time Pacific-10 Conference champions will begin preparations for an encore to their most successful season in school history by holding 15 practices during a four-week span, with workouts concluding with the annual intrasquad Spring Game on Saturday, April 27, in Portland's PGE Park.
The Ducks return 38 lettermen from last year's squad which culminated the season with an unprecedented 11-1 record, a 38-16 win over Colorado in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and a No. 2 national ranking. And although the returnees include 13 starters among no fewer than 88 players expected to be on hand for the first workout, much of the focus will center around the successor to Heisman Trophy finalist and two-year starting quarterback Joey Harrington.
The Portland native capped his collegiate career third on Oregon's all-time passing chart with 6,911 yards and 59 touchdown passes while leading the Ducks to 27 wins over the last three years.
'That will be everyone's focus,' Bellotti said of the battle to replace last year's conference offensive player of the year. 'We need to not just find out who No. 1 is but who No. 2 and No. 3 are because there will be an open competition.
'Certainly if we started today Jason Fife would be the guy,' Bellotti added. 'But he'll be challenged. I think Scott Vossmeyer is better and Kellen Clemens has some things going for him that I think is going to make it a very interesting challenge.'
Only Fife has taken a snap under center as a collegian with three games under his belt, with the junior-to-be completing six of nine passes for 71 yards in two appearances during the 2001 season.
Developments at fullback and tight end also will be key to the continuing success of the program which has won more games (60-23) than any other school in the Pac-10 during Bellotti's seven-year head coaching tenure.
The Ducks also face the task of replacing multi-year starters Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith in the defensive secondary, with no other cornerbacks boasting any starting experience among the six defensive starters returning from last season.
'With the exception of Stevie Moore, our corner position is very raw,' Bellotti admitted. 'I think we have talent there but it is inexperienced talent. There are a lot of prospects but we've go to find the proven players.'
Moore emerged as the team's first player off the bench at that position last year while former junior college transfer Courtney Miller earned a letter for his play on special teams in his first season in the program in 2001. The remaining candidates in the spring are expected to come from a group consisting of returning squad members Charles Favroth and Eddie Smith, as well as redshirt freshman Justin Phinisee.
Yet Bellotti feels Oregon does have the talent returning which could again challenge for the league's top honors as well as catapult the program to its 11th post-season berth since 1989.Heading the list is wide receiver Keenan Howry, who could vie to become the school's top receiver of all time, as well as tailback Onterrio Smith, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in his first year at Oregon last season despite only starting one game.
Howry garnered third-team All-America honors (Associated Press) after catching 52 passes for 682 yards and nine TDs, in addition to ranking eighth in the country in punt returns (14.5 avg.) and adding two more scores. His 133 career catches and 19 touchdowns stand only 29 grabs and five TDs shy of equaling school pinnacles. Smith, who shared the team's tailback chores with the departed Maurice Morris, earned second-team all-conference acclaim after rushing for 1,058 yards, averaging 27.6 yards in kickoff returns and ranking 26th in the country in all-purpose yards per game (128.0 avg.).
'Onterrio is a special back, I don't think that is a secret anymore,' Bellotti emphasized. 'He combines the best elements of certainly the best backs we've ever had since I've been here. The difference is this year he'll be a marked man and he'll be 'the guy,' he won't be coming in fresh off the bench. But I don't think that is a problem or a concern.
'Probably if you looked at pound-for-pound who's the best performer on the football field, it would be hard to find a better player than Keenan Howry. He can catch passes, block, run with the ball after the catch, return punts, would return kickoffs if we asked of him. In my mind he's the consummate performer because he gets everything out of his size, his speed and ability.'
Paving the way along the offensive line will be the return of starters Corey Chambers at tackle, guard Joey Forster and center Dan Weaver, with Forster earning all-conference honorable mention as a two-year starter.
The program also will add a new face to the coaching mix as well, with former Fresno State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig assuming the same duties at Oregon with Jeff Tedford's departure as California's head coach.
If there is a noticeable difference with the Ducks this spring it could lie on the defensive side of the football, where one of the major questions from previous off-seasons should be one of this year's strengths.
'With the exception of cornerback and (outside) linebacker, I think we have answers at every position,' Bellotti said of the defense. 'Potentially, we certainly will be a better defense up front. Our defensive line and the experience we have at linebacker, returning two of the three starters, should make us a better defensive football team up front and should actually make life easier for our corners.'
Seth McEwen, Kevin Mitchell and Keith Lewis each earned honorable mention all-conference accolades at defensive end, inside linebacker and free safety, respectively, while Rasuli Webster and David Moretti each started 11 of 12 games at the rover and middle linebacker positions. Quinn Dorsey and Darrell Wright shared starting honors at the other defensive end slot.
Mitchell looms as the Ducks' top returning tackler, recording 104 stops in addition to pacing last year's team with 23 tackles for losses and six quarterback sacks. Moretti and Lewis added 92 and 88 tackles, respectively, with Oregon returning six of its top 10 tacklers from a year ago.
Although Igor Olshanksy and Robby Valenzuela won't officially be listed among Oregon's returning starters at defensive tackle, the tandem played a major role in limiting Colorado to only 49 rushing yards in the Fiesta Bowl win after the Buffaloes came into the game ranked eighth in the country (228.5 avg.) in that category.
The Ducks also return punter Jose Arroyo (38.7 avg.), who helped the team rank sixth in the Pac-10 in net punting, as well as placekicker Jared Siegel, who shared honors with Howry as Oregon's scoring leader (72 points).
The program has created a precedent that may be hard to match, increasing its number of wins in each of its last five seasons and topped by last year's school-record 11 victories. But that won't deter Bellotti from striving for improvement.
'They say that getting there is difficult but staying there is much more difficult,' Bellotti said. 'Certainly the expectation is that we're going to be a great football team. But it's very important every year that we re-educate the kids in the program that (success) doesn't happen just because you put the uniform on. Every year you've got to roll your sleeves up and jump back in and put in the hard work and reconfigure the unity and chemistry of the team. The best way I know how to do that is to get everybody working very, very hard and believing that there's a little bit of potential left for us to achieve.'