Olin Buchanan Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Everywhere Nate Costa looks, he sees reasons Oregon can win a Pac-10 title - and maybe more.
He looks over his shoulder and sees running back LaMichael James, a Heisman Trophy contender.
He looks in front of him and sees five returning starters on an offensive line that allowed only 13 sacks and enabled James to rush for 1,546 yards last season.
He looks left and right and sees the Ducks' top three receivers from '09.
Across the line of scrimmage, he sees eight returning defensive starters.
And he sees a reason in the mirror, too.
"I know I have the ability to be the quarterback at Oregon and win a Pac-10 championship," Costa said.
Costa, competing with sophomore Darron Thomas for the starting quarterback job, may be the key to Oregon's championship aspirations. He has good leadership skills and is a better passer than former starter Jeremiah Masoli, who has been suspended for the season after he pleaded guilty March 12 to a misdemeanor burglary charge from January.
But does passing prowess really matter at Oregon, which ranked 98th in the nation and ninth in the Pac-10 in passing last season? Can the Ducks' run-oriented spread offense flourish with a quarterback who has had three knee surgeries?
Oregon didn't expect to face these types of questions. The Ducks have had back-to-back 10-win seasons, and with the depth chart filled with returning starters, most early projections had Oregon as the favorite to win a second consecutive Pac-10 championship. The Ducks also were seen as a strong contender for the national title.
Then came Masoli's suspension, which gives Costa another chance to lead the Ducks.
In 2007, Costa tore ligaments in his left knee during an October practice. Thus, when starter Dennis Dixon went down with torn ligaments of his own in November, Costa already was on the sideline.
Heading into the 2008 season, Costa had won the battle to follow Dixon as Oregon's starting quarterback. But he wrecked the same knee two weeks before the season-opener. Masoli took over soon afterward, and Costa appeared destined to finish his career as a backup.
Costa, who played as a true freshman in 2006 but didn't get on the field again until last season, never considered quitting and now has a great chance to regain the starting job.
"I think I couldn't ask for more," Costa said. "I've hung around Oregon for a while and I've been through turbulent times and our team has been through turbulent times. To be in this position as a senior - to possibly be the starting quarterback - I couldn't ask for more. I'm excited about it."
Masoli's arrest was just one of several incidents involving the Oregon players. Several players were suspended or dismissed from the team and coach Chip Kelly was sharply criticized.
"As players, a number of us made bad decisions," Costa said. "We're adults and we are expected to make good decisions, and as football players at Oregon we need to make better decisions because the spotlight is on us.
"Some blame Coach Kelly and the athletic department, but I'm not one of those. The blame can only go on the student-athletes. We made bad decisions and we have to learn from them."
That's an example of Costa's leadership qualities. He expects accountability without pointing fingers. He said "we" made bad decisions, even though he and most of his teammates spent the offseason lifting weights and working in seven-on-seven passing drills.
"Obviously, there were some turbulent discipline issues," he said. "We had more team meetings than any time I can remember. We were doing some things wrong and needed to fix that. But those off-field issues didn't hurt us as far as working out. We were working hard. That's one thing I really respect about this team - we didn't let all those issues distract us."
Still, there is a big difference in maintaining focus in the spring and winning in the fall.
Oregon has 29 victories over the past three seasons with Kelly as coach or offensive coordinator. In each of those seasons, the Ducks' main quarterback has rushed for at least 583 yards while passing for no more than 2,147.
Each season in that span, Oregon's rushing offense has averaged more than 231 yards and ranked no lower than sixth in the nation. Meanwhile, its passing offense has ranked no higher than 64th in the nation.
Costa can add a new dimension to Oregon's offense as a passer. But it's also a legitimate concern whether Costa, after three knee surgeries, is a good fit for Kelly's scheme. Thomas, a talented runner, is also vying for the job.
Costa was a talented runner at Hilmar (Calif.) High, in the north-central part of the state. In fact, he rushed for 1,709 yards as a senior. He said he's still capable of making plays with his feet.
"I think I'm fully recovered from all three knee surgeries," he said. "I feel like my running ability is up there with any other quarterback on the team, but I wouldn't call it Dennis Dixon-like.
"I don't feel my knee surgeries have affected me greatly. If anything, they made me a better passer because I spent more time in the film room. I'm still a dual-threat quarterback, but I prefer to throw the ball and allow my teammates to make plays."
That's what Kelly says he wants.
"We have enough playmakers at the other spots that the quarterback in this offense does not have to be the focal point," he told reporters before the start of spring drills. "He's got to be more like a point guard in basketball and distribute the ball to the right guy at the right time."
Costa sees playmakers everywhere he looks on offense. If he wins the job and can effectively distribute the ball, the Ducks actually could be as good as they were expected to be with Masoli.
"I'm very confident," he said. "When I walked onto the practice field [to start spring drills] I saw all the guys that have come back, the talent and depth we have. I can understand why reporters put us at the top of the Pac-10 and the nation. It makes sense. The spring is about developing that talent."
And finding the quarterback to direct it.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.