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Posted: Wednesday April 14, 2010 11:09AM; Updated: Wednesday April 14, 2010 2:35PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Even without Masoli, Oregon still looks like Pac-10 favorite

Story Highlights

Jeremiah Masoli is out for 2010, but Oregon is still very good team with few holes

Injury-plagued Sr. Nate Costa, fleet-footed Darron Thomas competing for QB job

RB LaMichael James is faster than ever, centerpiece of strong supporting cast

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Fifth-year senior Nate Costa does not boast Jeremiah Masoli's speed, but he has a strong arm and a firm grasp of the Oregon offense.
Fifth-year senior QB Nate Costa does not boast Jeremiah Masoli's speed, but he has a strong arm and a firm grasp of the Oregon offense.
Peter Read Miller/SI

EUGENE, Ore. -- For a brief moment during Monday's practice, the two brightest stars from Oregon's 2009 Rose Bowl run reunited. While the second-string offense scrimmaged, Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James shared a laugh on the sideline.

But then the whistle blew summoning the third-teamers and Masoli ran out to take his spot -- at receiver.

Masoli, the former star quarterback who was suspended for the upcoming season after pleading guilty to second-degree burglary for his part in a theft at a fraternity house, now watches two of his former backups, senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas, compete for this season's starting job (Masoli is eligible to return next season). He lines up at receiver, where Oregon is thin due to injuries.

"It's very odd," said James, who will sit out the season's first game due to his own offseason incident. "Last year was really fun with me and Masoli; we complemented each other very well. [This] year, I think it would have been impossible to stop both of us. But things happen for a reason."
MANDEL: James coping with regret

These days, Masoli's marginalized practice role is the most visible remnant of Oregon's nightmarish winter, during which six players were arrested and a seventh was dismissed for disciplinary reasons over a roughly month-long span in January and February.

But if you're ready to anoint a new Pac-10 favorite in light of Masoli's absence ... well, that's only because you haven't watched this team practice. The Ducks are really good.

Even without Masoli, Oregon returns 18 starters from last year's 10-3 team and it's always a good sign when most of the coach's biggest concerns involve depth, not holes. The one notable exception is quarterback, which will now fall either to Costa, an injury-plagued fifth-year senior with a strong arm and firm grasp of the offense, or Thomas, a lankier, fleet-footed sophomore who strongly resembles former star Dennis Dixon but is not yet a consistent enough passer.

Of course, this is hardly a unique scenario for Chip Kelly, who has dealt with a near-constant slew of injuries and personnel turnover since he first arrived in Eugene as offensive coordinator in 2007, but has yet to stop churning out explosive, powerful offenses.

"It's no different than when I went from Dennis to Brady [Leaf] to [Justin Roper]," said Kelly, referring to the domino of quarterbacks that fell late in Oregon's '07 season. "We have enough weapons at every spot, whether it's running back, receiver or tight end, that we feel we can exploit whatever the defense tries to do to us, but first we've got to get the offense rolling."

To do that, Kelly needs his quarterbacks to become more consistent. Both candidates have prior game experience. (Costa made a victorious start at UCLA last season when Masoli was hobbled. Thomas nearly led a fourth-quarter comeback against Boise State as a true freshman two years ago.) And while neither boasts the stocky Masoli's special combination of strength and speed, both are mobile enough to execute quarterback-run plays when necessary, and neither lacks arm strength.

"Jeremaiah is like a combination of both guys; that's what makes him a special player and that's what we're really going to miss," said top receiver Jeff Maehl. "But Nate throws the ball really well and makes all the right reads. And Darron's got that athletic ability that Jeremiah has and can really move around."

Costa appears to have the edge due to his experience, and his would certainly be a hard-earned starting job. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Californian was Dixon's original backup in '07 before tearing his ACL, then was named the starter the following season before suffering another season-ending knee surgery.

"Stepping in to this position is somewhat challenging, but it's not as difficult as people think it is because of the great supporting cast," said Costa.

The centerpiece of that supporting cast is indisputably James, a 1,546-yard rusher as a redshirt freshman. After joining Oregon's track team following football season, James showed up for the start of practice even faster than before.

"I want to be the fastest player in college football next year," said James, who ran the anchor leg for Oregon's 4x100 relay team at last weekend's Pepsi Team Invitational.

Kelly has spent much of the spring finding ways to get both James and backup Kenjon Barner -- another burner who gained 64 yards on seven carries against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl -- on the field together. In team drills, James sometimes lines up at receiver, a spot from which he both motions into the backfield and runs pass routes.

"We've led the Pac-10 in rushing every year I've been here, but I don't know if we've had a home-run hitter like LaMichael," said Kelly. "And Kenjon Barner is a home-run hitter, too. We used them both a little bit in the Civil War, and you'll see a lot more of that. Now, as a receiver, they only have to beat one guy. It's not the ball handed off and 11 guys coming at them."

If that doesn't sound scary enough, consider: Lache Seastrunk, a Rivals.com five-star running back from Texas, arrives this fall.

Meanwhile, Oregon's defense is so deep with experience that Kelly was able to move standout linebacker Eddie Pleasant to safety to shore up a unit last seen on the wrong end of too many Terrelle Pryor bombs in the Rose Bowl. Seniors like defensive end Kenny Rowe, linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger and cornerback Talmadge Jackson join youngsters like sophomore cornerback Cliff Harris and sophomore safety John Boyett, who learned on the fly last season following a slew of injuries in the secondary.

"I'm excited about how we're going to be defensively," said Kelly.

Much like his frenetic offense, Kelly does everything fast. Following Monday morning's typically high-paced practice (in which the Ducks ran more than 130 plays in 52 minutes of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills), the 46-year-old New Hampshire native retreated to his office. There, with two TVs tuned to sports channels and a soundtrack of '90s rock (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters) cascading from his speakers, he wolfed down a roast beef and cheddar sub while discussing the unusual highs and lows of his first 13 months on the job.

"I wouldn't have scripted it this way, I can tell you that," he said.

Just more than three years removed from his time as a Division I-AA offensive coordinator, Kelly already has a Rose Bowl appearance and Pac-10 Coach of the Year award to his name. But much of the country has seen his face more often in troubling times -- first in the aftermath of LeGarrette Blount's infamous postgame punch at Boise State in last season's opener, then during a slew of media appearances in which he defended himself and his program during last winter's police-blotter spree.

Fairly or unfairly, Kelly's program has become nearly as well-known for its players' misdeeds as their infamously gaudy uniforms.

"We're in an instant society nowadays I guess," said the coach. "You've got to deal with it. We're not going to hide from it. If you don't want to be in the paper, don't do anything wrong.

"You look at a million different reasons why each particular situation happened, but I don't think you can pinpoint one. We've addressed them and we'll continue to address them."

Kelly has been addressing crises from nearly the day he got to Eugene. Whether it's been Dixon and Costa blowing out their knees, Blount blowing his top on national TV or potential Heisman candidate Masoli blowing his spot on the team for a couple of laptops, Kelly has dealt with an inordinate amount of turmoil in a short amount of time.

But his offenses have yet to suffer. So why would this one?

"After Jeremiah's situation, people started switching their [Pac-10] picks or whatever," said Costa. "That doesn't really matter for us. We're just going to go out there and play ball. We know we have a good team. We're stacked at every position."

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