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The good news for an Oregon program rocked by a recent series of player arrests is that its defense will be better prepared for opponents next fall. That's because it will be tested every week by the finest scout-team quarterback in the country.
The bad news is, the QB will be dual-threat senior Jeremiah Masoli, a projected Heisman Trophy candidate who instead was identified as "the defendant" last Friday when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of second-degree burglary. Masoli, who led the Ducks to the 2009 Pac-10 title, and former receiver Garrett Embry admitted stealing laptop computers, a guitar and a projector from a fraternity house on Jan. 24. Each was sentenced to a year's probation and 140 hours of community service, and together must pay $5,200 in restitution.
Hours after the sentencing, coach Chip Kelly suspended Masoli for the 2010 season. Yes, Kelly imposed a similarly draconian punishment on LeGarrette Blount, who punched a Boise State player after a loss in the 2009 season opener, only to lift the suspension after eight games. Seeing the intense, gimlet-eyed coach repeatedly make the same point at Friday's press conference—"I've suspended Jeremiah for the entire season. Jeremiah will not be eligible to play.... He will not be eligible to play in 2010"—one got the impression that, in Masoli's case, there will be no time off for good behavior.
The primary difference? Masoli's suspension was the result of "a combination of both the incident and the degree of honesty," said athletic director Mike Bellotti. The quarterback's guilty plea came after he had denied his involvement in the thefts to Kelly and Eugene police.
Masoli's plea marked the nadir (Ducks fans hope) of an off-season that went off the rails shortly after the team's Rose Bowl appearance. Since Jan. 24, six players have wound up in police reports. Indeed, just hours before Masoli's plea, star running back LaMichael James appeared in the same courtroom and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of harassment following an altercation with a former girlfriend. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, put on probation and was suspended by Kelly for the season opener, against New Mexico.
The Ducks may still eke out a victory against the Lobos (1--11 in 2009) behind running back Kenjon Barner and Masoli's likely replacement, Nate Costa, a heady senior with a deep knowledge of Kelly's complex spread-option scheme. Then it depends on how long Costa, who has had three major knee surgeries in his career, can last.
Truth is, Masoli's crime and Kelly's punishment have hurt the team's chances of repeating as Pac-10 champs. With 19 starters returning, and with USC going through its first rough patch in a decade, the Ducks looked like a lock to get to a BCS bowl. But not without Masoli, who ran and threw for a total of 2,815 yards and 28 touchdowns last season.
Meanwhile Kelly—who exhorts his players to "Win the day!"—would consider it a victory to get to spring practice, starting on March 30, without any more embarrassing headlines.
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