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Aug. 10, 2006
By Lindsay Schnell
Special To CSTV.com
Oregon quarterback Brady Leaf doesn't want to admit it.
If the junior had it his way all these questions about cracking the USC dynasty would go away and in its place would be even more respect for the Ducks.
"I'd really like to say no, that a team doesn't have to beat USC to be considered a legit Pac-10 contender, but it's probably a yes," Leaf said. "They've run the show the last few years. But we would like to change that."
With all the weapons Oregon has returning, Leaf and company might be able to do just that.
After a disappointing 2004 season where the Ducks went 5-6, Oregon rebounded last year to compile a 10-1 regular season record, falling just short of a BCS bowl. Oregon ended its season with a disappointing 17-14 loss to Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl, and players got to work right away, hungry for another chance in 2006.
"We didn't go 12-0," safety J.D. Nelson said. "We weren't the best in the Pac-10, and that's a lot of motivation. But I think it is up for grabs this year."
Nelson, a senior, will help lead a Duck defense capable of bringing home a title to Eugene.
Oregon lost defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to the NFL, but should still be one of the best in the league with Nelson and fellow safety Patrick Chung in the lineup. Chung, a sophomore, was second on the team with 91 tackles and added two interceptions last season as he looks to have an even bigger impact this fall. Nelson and Chung will have to get used to playing with two new cornerbacks, but neither are too concerned.
"Replacing a guy like Ngata is tough, but we've got so many good guys who worked hard in the offseason," Nelson said. "We've got a guy who knows how to play hard and fast in Jackie Bates. And Patrick, he's one of the best I've ever played with and he's only in his second year."
Head coach Mike Bellotti has said that despite the loss of Ngata, the Ducks will continue to run the same defensive schemes, and expects younger players to step up.
"All our kids have to play harder," Bellotti said. "Each one has to go a little bit harder to make up for that loss and we've got to have guys fill that role together."
For his part, Chung is ready.
"I don't think I'm the star," said Chung, who also took time in the offseason to have shoulder surgery. "I have confidence in everyone - we've been working all offseason on getting better, stronger and thicker and we have to keep doing that."
Even with the defensive losses, Bellotti is confident in his crew and has said he thinks the Ducks' strength is right up the middle with Nelson, Chung and defensive end Matt Toeaina.
"I think people are going to be surprised by our defense," Bellotti said.
And for people that have followed the Ducks closely the last few years, the offense might be a little surprising too.
In his eleven years at the helm, Bellotti is one of the few coaches who has experienced success with the two quarterback system. It has worked for the Ducks with tandems such as Jason Maas-Akili Smith in 1997, Joey Harrington-A.J. Feeley in 1999 and Kellen Clemens-Jason Fife in 2003. Using two signal callers has been more of a symptom of Bellotti's reluctance to hand the reins of his team over to a single young player rather than his fondness for a dual quarterback system. The 2005 season was no different.
After losing starter Clemens to a season-ending injury, then-sophomores Leaf and Dennis Dixon split time, catching on quickly to the new spread offense and leading Oregon to a postseason berth. Now though, Bellotti says Dixon is his No. 1 guy.
"The two quarterback system was born out of necessity last year," Bellotti explained. "We'd like to have one and Dennis will be our starter in the fall."
"This is what I've dreamed of," Dixon said. "Last year gave me a lot of experience and I know now that any challenge can be thrown at me and I'm gonna have to work hard to keep that spot."
Leaf isn't so quick to concede to the plan of Dixon calling the shots right away.
"I plan to go into camp and prove myself," Leaf said. "I plan to be the quarterback of this team."
Bellotti will be the first to admit that having two who can - and want - to lead a team isn't the worst place to be as a coach.
"We don't anticipate [playing both equally] but we will if both have proven that they need to play," he said.
After a year of offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's complicated spread offense, the Ducks will get back to running more this year and add new wrinkles to their game plan.
"Last year we were trying to find our offense, but now we've got it and we can mix and match," Dixon said.
While Bellotti is confident with an offense that returns a lot of starters, he's expressed concern at the lack of a sure No. 1 receiver.
"We don't have one receiver stepping up yet saying, `I'm going to be like [top 2005 Oregon receiver] Demetrius Williams,'" Bellotti said. "And we don't need just one - we need two."
The Ducks have top prospects though, in junior Cameron Colvin and senior James Finley. Finley, who caught 57 passes last year for 571 yards and two touchdowns, emerged as the No. 2 receiver for the Ducks in `05. Now, after a year under Crowton's tutelage, Finley is feeling even better.
"I think last year our spread offense hurt the run a little, but this year we're going to run more and that will open up the passing game," Finley said. "Our whole line is coming back and that means something."
Colvin, who caught 22 balls for 322 yards last year and three touchdowns, is a little more forward with his thoughts on the upcoming season.
"It's time for me to step up and play," he said. "When you think Oregon football, I want you to think Cameron Colvin."
When people think of Oregon football, running back Jonathan Stewart will also come to mind. Stewart, the team's leading returning rusher, had 53 carries for 188 yards and six touchdowns last season. He is also a guy Bellotti has a lot of confidence in.
"He will be returning kicks this year again," Bellotti said. "I want the ball in his hands as much as possible."
While Bellotti has said his main concerns are getting continued development from the quarterbacks, depth at the tight end position and finding a No. 1 option in the offense, Dixon thinks the Ducks already have it.
"A lot of people say we're coming into the season with questions," he explained. "I think we already have the answers, we've just got to find a way to get them the ball."
And if Dixon and Leaf can find that answer consistently, maybe the Pac-10 title will spend a year out of Southern California.