Keith Lewis is a difficult guy to impress. Two weeks before Oregon's game with Washington last season, the Ducks' free safety told a Seattle radio station that the Huskies in general and star quarterback Cody Pickett in particular were "overrated" (a statement for which Oregon coach Mike Bellotti slapped him with a gag order through the end of the season). Lewis can be just as critical in his assessment of his own team, especially last year's defense. "To be honest," he says, "we pretty much sucked."
After challenging for the national championship in 2001, the Ducks were dragged down last season by a pass defense that ranked third worst in the nation (291.2 yards allowed per game). Lewis, who picked off five passes, was second-team All- Pac-10, but he spent much of his time trying to cover for inexperienced cornerbacks Steven Moore, Aaron Gipson and Marques Binns. "Our cornerbacks were all first-year starters," says Bellotti. "It was a trial by fire, and it's not surprising that they gave up some big plays. But having gone through that will make them better players."
Just in case, Bellotti brought in plenty of competition for the corner slots, including highly regarded freshman Ryan Gilliam and a pair of junior college standouts, Rodney Woods and Marc Walker. He also hired a new secondary coach, John Neal, after Mike Gillhamer took the defensive coordinator job at Louisville. According to Lewis, Neal's defensive schemes won't leave the cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage as often as they were in 2002. The Ducks are also counting on their solid front seven to take some of the pressure off the secondary. Igor Olshansky and Haloti Ngata are disruptive tackles, and inside linebacker Kevin Mitchell (5'11", 220 pounds) is fast, smart and a big hitter.
"I like the talent we're going to put out on the field," Lewis says. "We've got a chance to be good, real good." Considering the source, that's high praise.
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