Oregon Opens Spring Football Drills With 2-Hour Workout
April 5, 2003
EUGENE - An overall improvement on the field as well as a rejuvenated sense of confidence will be the focus as Oregon officially began the process of putting last year's frustrations behind them during its first of 15 spring practices Saturday morning at Kilkenny Field.
The Ducks face the task of redeeming themselves for a 7-6 season which ended with a 38-17 loss to Wake Forest in the Seattle Bowl after beginning the year with six straight wins. In order to accomplish that, head coach Mike Bellotti is aware the priorities he must address lie with the team's physical and mental improvement as he prepares for his ninth season at the Oregon helm.
'We have something to prove,' Bellotti said. 'We have to prove we can move the ball better offensively -- score points -- and we have to prove we can stop people from throwing the ball against us.
'But it's going to be very important to address our own self-image first. We have to find a way to feel good about ourselves. It starts with the way you practice, it starts with the respect of your teammates and it starts with the way you perform. It's very important to understand that we weren't happy with the way last season ended. Whether it's our psyche or our confidence, I think it was lacking the second half of last season. The best way I know to remedy that is to compete -- to come out every day ready to play and believe you have a chance to make a difference. So we're going to be very opportunistic in the spring in terms of giving people a chance and letting them compete and let the best man win.'
Fourteen starters in addition to an All-America place-kicker are back from a year ago as 37 returning lettermen paced the Ducks through Saturday's 135-minute workout, with much of the focus centering around questions similar to a year ago.
Senior-to-be Jason Fife started all 13 games at quarterback for the Ducks last season and ranked as high as second in the nation in passing efficiency after seven games, yet is expected to again be matched in a tight battle for the starting nod with future sophomore Kellen Clemens, who played went most of the way in the bowl setback. Fife finished the year completing 190 of 367 passes for 2,752 yards and 24 touchdowns while Clemens was 23-of-40 for 201 yards and two scores. However Fife threw for only 548 yards, four TDs and four interceptions over his final four appearances while his completion percentage dipped to just over 38 percent during the final stretch as a first-year starter.
'We were not as efficient on offense in terms of getting the ball into the end zone during the latter stages of the season,' Bellotti stated. 'The bottom line is it doesn't matter how you move the football, it's scoring points.
'Both quarterbacks need to see the field better. Jason also needs to work on his consistency and Kellen needs to work on his decision-making.'
Although the Ducks return more starters from last year on the offensive side of the ball (8) compared to defense (6), Bellotti sees a greater need for inexperienced players to step forward on offense in order to ensure success.
'When you take away Onterrio Smith, George Wrighster and Keenan Howry, you're talking about a tremendous amount of offense and points walking out the door,' Bellotti admitted. 'So the challenge will be greater to the offense to not only sustain but improve their performance.'
The departed trio combined to represent over 50 percent of Oregon's all-purpose yards and 37 percent of its scoring a year ago, with Smith finishing seventh on the school's career rushing chart (2,199 yards) after only two seasons, while Howry completed his four-year tenure as the Ducks' school record-holder in receptions (173), punt return yards (1,221) and touchdown receptions co-leader (24).
Crucial to that offensive improvement will be the development of returning wide receivers Keith Allen, Kellen Taylor and Demetrius Williams to go alongside Samie Parker, a tailback to emerge from a group that consists of Ryan Shaw, Chris Vincent, Kenny Washington and Terrence Whitehead, and a tight end to step forward.
The offensive line should be solid with the return of all five starters, led by second-team all-conference choice and Rimington Trophy nominee (awarded to nation's best center) Dan Weaver, as well as honorable mention all-Pac-10 guards Joey Forster and Nick Steitz.
Defensively, the Ducks have their sights set on shoring up a pass defense which ranked 115 of 117 Division I schools in the country as well as solidifying replacements for two of three starting linebackers.
'We'll continue to evolve as a defense and part of that will be the implementation of some new schemes and strategies,' Bellotti admitted. 'Part of it will be the refinement of what we have been doing and the last thing will be the introduction of more opportunity for personnel. Each year you look at your structure, your scheme and your personnel. Then you try and match those things together to create the opportunity for success for the players on the field.'
Senior free safety Keith Lewis is expected to play a big role in the improvement of the defensive secondary as a third-year starter, while incumbent starters Steven Moore and Aaron Gipson head a group of cornerback returnees which includes Marques Binns, Charles Favroth, Sam Hughes and Justin Phinisee. The Ducks are hoping for vast improvement from Gipson and Binns, who combined for 13 starts at one of the cornerback outposts as true freshmen.
Senior linebacker Kevin Mitchell looms as the top returning tackler in the Pac-10 from last season, with the second-team all-conference pick accumulating 114 tackles in 2002. Jerry Matson and David Martin return as the most experienced reserves among the hopefuls to replace David Moretti and outside linebacker Garret Graham, with quarterback transplants Scott Vossmeyer and Andy Collins attempting to work their way onto the field at new positions.
Bellotti is counting on a veteran line to spearhead a large measure of the defensive improvement. Honorable mention all-conference tackles Igor Olshansky and Haloti Ngata ranked as the team's fourth and eighth-leading tacklers last year and helped the Ducks finish 25th in the country against the run. Junior Siavii and Robby Valenzuela also provide solid inside support to make the position the strongest two-deep of any on the team.
Chris Solomona gets his first chance to make an impact at defensive end after redshirting last year while veteran Quinn Dorsey returns to the mix after also sitting out 2002 as a five-game 2001 starter. Sophomore Devan Long also will contend for a starting nod although he may have to wait until the fall to make his greatest impact while recovering from facial injuries.
Returning Lou Groza Award finalist Jared Siegel looms as one of the top place-kickers in the country after connecting on 20 of 24 field goals last season, and also could experiment as a punter in the spring.
Another note of interest will be the progress of a quartet of spring newcomers who could make an impact next fall, including a pair of prep standouts who have yet to graduate from high school. Graham, Wash., quarterback Johnny DuRocher and Olympia, Wash., receiver/kick returner Jordan Carey opted to become Oregon's first prep early entries in two decades. Junior college transfer Eddie Whitaker and freshman Victor Filipe also could take advantage of the extra early work to make immediate impacts at tight end and defensive end, respectively.
'The acceleration of their learning will be their biggest benefit,' Bellotti said of DuRocher and Carey's participation during spring drills. 'They're going to come into fall camp as veterans as opposed to the wide-eyed freshmen. They'll have a term of college life under their belts, both in training and the competition. But the knowledge of the level in which they'll have to perform - that in itself is a tremendous advantage. The first things that most high school seniors talk about when they get here is how fast everything moves - the speed at which things happen and the ability of everyone around them. By coming in the spring, I think it changes your whole mind-set.'
The Ducks will scheduled to conduct practices during the coming week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. They will conclude spring drills with their intrasquad Spring Game Saturday, May 3, in Autzen Stadium.