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Briefly considered among the nation's elite, Oregon has suffered a fall from those ranks that has been almost as dramatic as its ascendancy. A decade of improvement -- culminating in a Fiesta Bowl win and No. 2 ranking to close the 2001 season -- was followed by a three-year descent that resulted in a 5-6 record in 2004, the Ducks' first losing season since 1993.
Getting back on the winning track won't be easy. Plenty of veteran talent is back at the skill positions, but the Ducks had to rebuild their offensive line in the offseason. Defensively, a strong line and solid secondary surround a linebacking corps gutted by graduation and injuries. Question marks at those key positions have coach Mike Bellotti hedging his bets entering this fall. "I like this team," Bellotti said. "I think we have the chance to be very good. But I thought last year's team had a chance to be very good, too."
If nothing else, Bellotti can be applauded for refusing to stand pat. Among his eight assistant coaching positions, four are filled by new faces this season -- two new hires, and two new assignments. And the Ducks signed seven junior college players in February, an unusually high number for Bellotti. The biggest change is at offensive coordinator, where former BYU head coach Gary Crowton will try to improve Oregon's vertical passing game. He replaced Andy Ludwig, who left after three seasons in which he was eclipsed by the long shadow of Jeff Tedford, the current Cal head coach who was Oregon's offensive coordinator during its climb to prominence.
Crowton was hired to revitalize a unit that has stagnated since the departure of Tedford following the 2001 season, when the Ducks finished No. 2 in the country. Crowton will overhaul the offense with a package that incorporates a vertical passing attack from multiple-receiver sets and aspects of the spread-option concept popularized by Utah.
At the helm for the Ducks is quarterback Kellen Clemens, a tough senior who will be called on to shorten his release time and improve his touch on deep balls this season. The offense suffered when receiver Demetrius Williams and tight end Tim Day were injured last fall, but both seniors will be healthy in the fall. Running back Terrence Whitehead is also a senior, though he'll have to hold off heralded freshman Jonathan Stewart.
The question mark on offense is the line, which lost four seniors. Right guard Ian Reynoso and center Enoka Lucas are the only experienced veterans, with the other three spots to be filled by unproven returners or junior college transfers. As good as the skill position players are, the offense will struggle if a capable line isn't assembled.
The other big question mark this season is at linebacker, where the Ducks lost two of their top three tacklers to graduation. Three more junior college players were signed to fill the two inside positions. The team's depth chart lists five defensive backs, but the strong safety is simply a new name for the outside linebacker. A.J. Tuitele brings experience to the position. Anthony Trucks is a proven veteran inside.
The strengths of the defense are a talented line led by end Devan Long and tackle Haloti Ngata, and a deep secondary. Long is a speed rusher with a motor that doesn't quit, while Ngata is a mammoth plugger with impressive agility for his size.
In the backfield, J.D. Nelson is a leader at free safety, and Aaron Gipson is a proven cover corner. Justin Phinisee provides valuable size at corner, but he may be needed more at rover, allowing speedy sophomore Jackie Bates to start at corner.
Both kickers are new, though one is a familiar face. Paul Martinez flopped as a punter the last two seasons, but he has moved to place-kicker this season, the position where he excelled in high school. The new punter is yet another junior college transfer, Matt Dragich.
Given the muddled state of the Pac-10 behind USC, it's conceivable that Oregon could finish as high as second or third this season. But the first goal is getting back above .500, no easy task considering the presence of Fresno State on its non-conference schedule.
The Ducks need a quick transition from the new starters on the offensive line and at linebacker, and marked improvement on special teams, which drew far too many penalties last season. Oregon also isn't a particularly deep team, especially at quarterback, tight end, defensive line and linebacker.
If the new faces hold their own, the talented skill players can make the Ducks one of the better teams in the conference. But if the new additions struggle or the veterans can't stay healthy, the possibility of again missing a bowl game looms.