The first play that quarterback Jeremiah Masoli queues up during a late July tape session is Oregon's opening snap in the Holiday Bowl last December. What appears to be a garden-variety screen to a wideout—Masoli throws a quick hitch to Jeff Maehl—turns interesting when Maehl, running parallel to the line of scrimmage, pitches back to Masoli, who throws a 47-yard strike to wideout Jamere Holland, setting the tone for Oregon's wide-open, 42--31 victory over Oklahoma State.
Masoli is the latest and least likely in the long line of superb Oregon quarterbacks. After transferring from City College of San Francisco, he was fifth on the depth chart as a sophomore entering preseason practice in 2008. Demonstrating a savant's grasp of offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's bewildering triple option, he was named the starter by the fourth game of the season—by which time, Masoli notes, his head had yet to stop spinning from trying to digest Oregon's playbook.
"Physically, I was ready last year," he says. "Mentally, definitely not." It took time for him to master such nuances as executing ball fakes to Kelly's satisfaction and selling the defense on that Holiday Bowl play. "After I throw it the first time," he says of the toss to Maehl, "you see how I walk back a few steps, like the play is over."
Next up on the tape, Masoli takes a shotgun snap, freezes the linebackers with a silky fake to the running back and then takes off, bowling over a free safety on his way to a spectacular 41-yard touchdown. At a school known for mobile quarterbacks—Akili Smith, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon—Masoli set an Oregon season rushing record (718 yards) for the position in his first year out of junior college. Built like a fullback (5'11", 214), he is more durable than the willowy Dixon. By the end of last season Masoli was running Oregon's zone read, if it's possible, more skillfully than Dixon once did. Over the final three games (including against the quality defenses of Arizona and Oregon State) Masoli threw for 830 yards and six touchdowns, and ran for 248 and seven.
With an entire off-season to prepare as the starter, Masoli will be even better in '09. Little wonder there is guarded optimism around Oregon's football offices that, with some luck, this kid could carry the Ducks to a special season (page 84).
Back in the video room it's LeGarrette Blount's turn. A vexing blend of speed and power, the 6'2", 240-pound senior from East Mississippi Community College rushed for 1,002 yards last season (7.3 yards per carry) as a backup to Jeremiah Johnson. Accelerating into the secondary on one play, Blount hurdles an Oklahoma State safety en route to the end zone. Another Blount highlight, this one from Oregon's 65--38 Civil War beatdown of Oregon State: He uses just enough wiggle to elude a linebacker on his way to a 46-yard pickup. "I threw the stiff-arm too early," says Blount, critiquing himself.
"You ain't even got a stiff-arm," says tight end Ed Dickson, not long before seizing the remote control to find highlights of himself. And they are plentiful. Among the nation's top tight ends, the 6'5", 243-pound senior is arguably the most versatile as well, lining up next to a tackle, in the slot, split wide and in the backfield. Every so often Kelly even uses Dickson as a pitch back.
Dickson had a career game against Boise State last season, catching seven passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, but any reference to that subject throws a wet blanket over the room. Masoli was knocked out in the first quarter of what he—and all of Duck Nation—regarded as a cheap shot. With Masoli out, Boise State upset the Ducks 37--32.
As it happens, Oregon opens on Sept. 3 on the blue turf at Bronco Stadium. Blount puts it bluntly: "We owe that team an ass-whuppin'." A tense silence ensues, until Dickson breaks it. "You know something," he says, "my favorite color is blue."
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Stewart Mandel writes about the two teams he believes will play in the BCS title game at SI.com/bonus