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OREGON'S 2009 SEASON STARTED WITH A CRISIS: A 19-8 LOSS AT Boise State was made uglier when running back and Heisman hopeful LeGarrette Blount punched a Broncos player after the game, earning a 10-game suspension. But then the Ducks won 10 of their next 11 games and earned their first Rose Bowl berth since 1995. Given that response, Oregon may be better suited than many teams to weather the off-season's myriad troubles, which included a number of player arrests, suspensions and dismissals. True, the loss of explosive dual-threat QB Jeremiah Masoli is costly enough that more realistic Ducks fans have set aside visions of a national title. (Masoli was suspended for the 2010 season for his involvement in robbing a fraternity house last January, then dismissed from the program in June after being cited for marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license.) But coach Chip Kelly, one of the game's most creative offensive minds, will aim to exploit the strengths of Masoli's replacements, senior Nate Costa and redshirt sophomore Darron Thomas.
"The common thought is that Nate is the heady, nonathletic kid and Darron is the athletic guy who is not as sharp," says Kelly. "But Darron is a lot sharper than people think, and Nate is a lot more athletic than people think. The fun part of being a coach is figuring out and accentuating the strengths of this player or that one." Whoever gets the job will be surrounded by talent. The solid offensive line returns all its starters, and Oregon has blazingly fast running backs, including LaMichael James (118.9 rushing yards per game) and Kenjon Barner, both sophomores who moonlight as sprinters on the track and field team.
The wide receiver corps, headlined by senior Jeff Maehl (53.5 receiving yards a game), is also deep. Indeed, the Ducks have depth just about everywhere. There are some questions on the defensive line, which lost stalwarts Will Tukuafu and Blake Ferras to graduation, but even there, end Kenny Rowe and tackle Brandon Bair are back. If the unit stays healthy, it should keep pace with the rest of what is the most experienced—and probably fastest—defense in the conference. "The D-line is going to be a strong point for us," predicts Kelly. The challenge for the Pac-10's other coaches will be finding points on this Oregon squad that, even after the off-season upheaval, aren't strong.
COACH Chip Kelly (2nd year)
10-3 (8-1 in Pac-10)