Something to prove

EUGENE — While all eyes expect to be trained on the quarterback position Saturday, this year's version of the Oregon Ducks is eager to prove that one player won't make or break what the team hopes will be another exciting season.

The news that expected starter Nate Costa is lost for the season thanks to a third injury to his left knee is an unfortunate blow, but one the Ducks hope to overcome with depth at that position and a host of returners on defense.

Oregon's first chance to show its wares will be Saturday night, when Pac-10 Conference rival Washington invades Autzen Stadium in a pressure-packed opening game for the Ducks.

"It's sort of a unique season in that we start with a rivalry and we end with a rivalry (Nov. 29 at Oregon State)," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. "I think that's pretty awesome for our offseason preparation in terms of focus and attention."

By all accounts, the Ducks came into fall camp with a focus on proving there is life after Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart and that outlook has only gotten greater since the recent injury to Costa and subsequent surgery on his damaged anterior cruciate ligament.

"Every year there's going to be an evolution of what you do to match the talents of your players," said Bellotti. "If you don't do that, you're probably making a lot of mistakes."

Justin Roper was already pushing Costa for playing time at quarterback in the days leading up to the fellow sophomore's non-contact injury, and will be making only his second start for the Ducks on Saturday. The only other start for the 6-foot-6, 205-pounder came in a 56-21 victory over South Florida in last year's Sun Bowl, where he completed a tidy 17 of 30 passes for 180 yards and four touchdowns.

Roper found himself as far down as fifth on the depth chart at QB last year before rising to the top for the season finale. He began this year at the No. 2 slot and had outperformed Costa in a couple scrimmages, giving rise to the notion that the Ducks would potentially play multiple quarterbacks this season.

Despite Costa's injury, that expectation still exists thanks to the emergence of junior college transfer Jeremiah Masoli. The 5-11, 214-pounder pronounced himself healthy a week ago after a wrist injury slowed his progress in fall camp, and the coaches appear intrigued with what the spread offense specialist can bring to the table.

Masoli led City College of San Francisco to a junior college national title as a freshman last year, completing 61 percent of his passes and amassing over 4,000 yards of total offense with 41 touchdowns (11 rushing).

"Obviously, we would all like to have one quarterback," said Bellotti. "If we decide to play more than one, it's because they both deserve to play or they bring certain things to the table that the other may not. We have done it in the past with actually quite a bit of success, but it's not necessarily something we choose to do."

Also in the quarterback mix at the No. 3 slot is true freshman Chris Harper, whom Bellotti said "may be the best player with the football in his hands on the team."

Whether it's Roper or Masoli or Harper, offensive coordinator Chip Kelly isn't concerned with the options he has at that position.

"Whoever ends up taking snaps in the Huskies game, we're going to have a talented kid behind center," said Kelly.

Part of that confidence comes from the fact that Oregon returns a trio of steady linemen in All-American center Max Unger, guard Mark Lewis and tackle Fenuki Tupou and has several rising stars to count on in filling out the starting lineup.

Also of particular importance for the Ducks will be a ground game featuring senior slasher Jeremiah Johnson and the punishing style of junior college transfer LeGarrette Blount.

Johnson averaged 6.4 yards per carry and tallied five rushing touchdowns prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game last year, and all signs are positive that he has rebounded from his injury.

Blount, who stands 6-2 and 240 pounds, provides the perfect complement with a bruising style that allowed him to rack up more than 1,000 yards rushing in each of his two seasons at East Mississippi CC. Blount was tabbed as the nation's top JC running back in the Junior College rankings, and carried the ball five times for 68 yards in Oregon's spring game.

"I feel really good about our running backs," said Bellotti. "Jeremiah is healthy and doing very, very well and LeGarrette Blount had a tremendous offseason in terms of work and progress. With his mere presence in the spring we got more out of Andre Crenshaw and Remene Alston than maybe they thought was possible."

The offseason was also kind to receiver Jaison Williams, who enters his senior season only 40 receptions and 688 yards behind all-time leader Samie Parker. As somewhat of an enigma for Duck fans because of his occasional drops, Williams spent the offseason embarking on a vision improvement program to help offset an issue he has with the ability to track things in one of his eyes. After his work with a Nike vision specialist, Bellotti said Williams' tracking ability went up 14 percent.

"He's never, ever shirked the opportunity to work," Bellotti said of Williams. "He's one of the guys who practices maybe more than anybody on our football team and he was probably as frustrated as any of us in terms of the number of drops."

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," added Kelly. "Jaison dropped a lot of balls, but it was because Jaison was open. There's a lot of guys that wish they were that open to even get an opportunity to drop them."

A big push during fall camp has been to find receiving options to help free Williams from constant double teams, with Terence Scott, Jeff Maehl and Jamere Holland as the likely candidates. The Ducks also hope to get a boost from tight end Ed Dickson, who showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore last year.

While the offense expects to be a work in progress, Oregon's defense is loaded with key returners at each level — but none greater than in the secondary where returning rover Patrick Chung and cornerbacks Walter Thurmond III and Jairus Byrd patrol with a lockdown mentality.

Bellotti said that trio, along with free safety T.J. Ward, comprise arguably the best secondary in school history and possibly in the nation. The three returning starters combined for 284 tackles a year ago and 14 interceptions, led by Byrd's seven picks.

The mere presence of such a solid corps of backline defenders will have a trickle down effect, according to All-American defensive end Nick Reed.

"I've been on some good defenses, but I cannot imagine a better team than we have now," he said.

Last year, Reed finished as the nation's third-leading tackler for loss and the Pac-10 leader in sacks with 12. He'll once again be joined on the edge by junior Will Tukuafu, with fifth-year seniors Cole Linehan and Ra'Shon "Sonny" Harris stepping in to fill the void at defensive tackle.

Veterans Jerome Boyd and John Bacon return at linebacker, with Spencer Paysinger stepping in to a starting role for the first time. Returners Casey Matthews and Riley Showalter will also add depth to a defense that won't mind carrying the load if need be.

"I hope the offense starts off great and I have no reason to believe that they won't," said Reed. "I think they're going to be just as good as they were last year. But it doesn't matter how the offense is going to do, we're going to do awesome. So if they're doing great and we do awesome then we'll beat teams 40-0. And if we do great and the offense starts slow, then we'll beat teams 12-0."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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