Feature: Sounds of Fall Ring Out as Ducks Open Camp

Aug. 8, 2007

By Doug Bonham
Oregon Daily Emerald

August 8, 2007

Eugene, OR (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Cleats clacked on the asphalt as players walked from the Autzen Stadium locker rooms over to the practice field. Jerseys hung loose without shoulder pads on over players' shorts, and helmets were snapped down tight. Coaches barked out instructions, and kept the players hustling after the horn sounded the end of one drill and the beginning of another.

One cornerback, after bringing an interception back to the endzone on a 7-on-7 drill, began humming the first few bars of 'Mighty Oregon.'

And the media flocked, encasing senior quarterback Dennis Dixon and junior running back Jonathan Stewart with microphones after the veterans' split practice ended early in the afternoon.

Football season is back, and everyone - from the coaches down to the players - couldn't be happier for its return.

Head Coach Mike Bellotti addressed the media Monday afternoon in a white polo and green shorts, prepared to be out on the field for the first day of fall training camp under the August sun. 'I think we're excited (to start camp),' Bellotti said, 'And the prospect of staying hungry and playing with a purpose.'

Fall camp opens 26 days before the first game, at home against Houston at Autzen Stadium at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 1, and almost eight months after Oregon's last game, a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. That game still acts as a catalyst for Oregon's focus on improvement this offseason.

'We failed to accomplish our goals, especially at the end of the season and that weighs on you pretty heavily,' Bellotti said at the press conference. 'But now it's fuel for the fire for what we want to do this season.'

The players took the loss as the learning experience that Bellotti told the press he felt it was. 'That's key,' Dixon said of using the loss as inspiration. 'We have a sour taste in our mouth right now.'

'Right now everybody's just hungry,' Stewart said. 'To go out like how we did, that's the worst thing. It was terrible.'

The work started with spring practices and continued through the voluntary summer practices. Now, with less than a month until the first game of the season, the coaches and players must bear down and focus on the teams' needs and preparing for opening day.

Bellotti highlighted five points the team needed to work on to improve from last season: Retaining possession on offense, quarterback decision-making, improving special teams, stopping the run and forcing turnovers on defense, and finding a stand-out punt returner to lead the team.

Offense: Question marks surround stars

The first two of the coach's goals reflect directly on the play of Dixon, the quarterback who Bellotti insisted was his preference for starter. However, Dixon threw 14 interceptions last season, including five in the last three games he played in (against USC, Arizona and BYU). Dixon's decision making was a point of emphasis for Bellotti during spring practice, too.

Though it might have been without pads and just the first practice of the long fall season, Dixon was in stride, looking sharper than Leaf during passing drills and even able to break into a trademark scramble during a 7-on-7 passing drill late in the day. Actions spoke just as loud as words to the gathered media throng, though Dixon repeatedly confirmed that, yes, he did not lose anything by playing baseball this past summer.

'Not at all, I practiced every day and I kept in contact with my teammates on a regular basis,' Dixon said of his minor league experience. 'The relationship is right there, there's nothing wrong with that. My teammates are behind me 100% and that's all that matters.'

Dixon's similarly high-profile teammate, Jonathan Stewart, has an entirely different question before him heading into the season: health. He admitted to the media Monday that he wasn't fully healthy at times last year, bothered by a string of ankle injuries that never fully healed and in turn hampered his ability to make explosive, game-changing runs.

When asked of his goal for the summer, Stewart said, 'To be an every-down back, to be able to produce... without any injuries.'

The other big question surrounding the team is how much the offense will change under first-year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. Bellotti was quick to dissuade any worry, though, insisting that very little would change.

'The reality is, the offense will be very, very similar to the last two years,' Bellotti said. 'It may be packaged a bit differently, and we're trying to vary the tempo of the game even more than we did last year. In terms of the base offense itself, those are the same. That's one of the reasons why we brought Chip in, because of his experience in that area.'

Stewart also endorses Kelly's offense and coaching style, saying 'I like it, it's real fast-paced. Especially when you're on a roll, it's really fast paced and keeps rolling and rolling.'

With so many top players returning on the offense at every position, and what coaches are saying is an easy transition into the new offense, the Ducks' potent attack should continue this season.

Defense: Is health the answer?

Bigger questions remain on the defensive side of the ball. Though very few doubt the abilities of the secondary, there are holes after last season at the linebacker position and questions as to whether, if healthy, the defensive line will be strong enough.

Both Bellotti and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti believe that the returning injured players and some new additions will provide the depth on the defensive line that was missing last year.

'I think we've got a group of guys that can mix and match and we'll be okay,' Aliotti said of the defensive line. 'I think they're all hungry to be a starter, hungry to play.' Bellotti mentioned in the morning press conference that at times last season, the Ducks defense had just two healthy defensive tackles, and this season they're entering fall camp with five, not counting defensive ends who can platoon at the position if needed.

'We'll probably play more defensive lineman this year than we have,' Aliotti said. 'I think we have eight to ten bodies that we're excited about that can give us positive downs. I feel really good about our secondary. If we can go in and press-man, and play in people's faces, that'll play to our strengths if we're able to do that and bring some pressure.'

Though he's become one of the defensive secondary players to watch for the Ducks with his combination of strength and speed, junior Patrick Chung is determined to continue improving his game.

'Everything. Not just me, everybody. Faster, better, stronger, mentally, physically. Everything,' Chung said when asked what he was focusing on.

Chung echoed a sentiment of camaraderie surrounding the camp so far this offseason. 'All of us working out together is a family, that's what happens when you're around your teammates all the time,' Chung said. 'We also need to compete all the time.'

Even now, Chung is focused solely on the first game of the season. 'Right now we're worried about Houston. That's it. After Houston it's Michigan, after that it's Fresno.'

Hunger and desire to turn around last season echoed throughout the camp, as did a sense of camaraderie. Oregon succeeded in 2005, turning around a 5-6 2004 season into an 11-2 campaign; repeating that success must be on the minds of this veteran squad.

(C) 2007 Oregon Daily Emerald via CSTV U-WIRE

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