Top 50 Countdown: No. 32 Oregon

Coach: Mike Bellotti | Staff
In 2006: 7-6, 4-5 Pac-10; Lost to BYU 38-8 in Las Vegas Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 8.
Key losses: C Enoka Lucas, TE Dante Rosario, DT Matt Toeaina, MLB Blair Phillips, FS J.D. Nelson.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Oregon again was one of the top offensive teams in the Pac-10 in 2006, leading the conference in rushing and total offense. But the Ducks weren't as effective as they could have been. Oregon turned the ball over 32 times last year and only created 22 turnovers, a margin of minus-10. Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton left Oregon for LSU during the offseason, but the Ducks may have found a better fit for their spread option with New Hampshire's Chip Kelly. Oregon will have a nice collection of skill position players, led by running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson.

OREGON TOP 10
Can Jonathan Stewart stay healthy?

1. RB Jonathan Stewart
2. S Patrick Chung
3. RBJeremiah Johnson
4. WR Jaison Williams
5. S Jairus Byrd
6. WR Brian Paysinger
7. CB Walter Thurmond
8. CB Willie Glasper
9. OL Max Unger
10. DE Nick Reed
Best player: RB Jonathan Stewart. Stewart came to Oregon as the top running back in the class of 2005. In his first season as a featured back, Stewart fought injuries to run for 981 yards, 10 touchdowns and 5.4 yards per carry. Stewart has elite physical skills and speed at 5-foot-11, 230 pounds. The country is waiting to see what he can do in a full, injury-free season.

Most overrated: WR Cameron Colvin. Colvin came to Oregon in 2004 as a five-star recruit, but has produced little in his three years in Eugene. He has only 54 catches for 644 yards in his career.

Most underrated: WR Jaison Williams. Williams emerged last year with 68 catches for 984 yards, but was overshadowed by Pac-10 receivers Dwayne Jarrett, DeSean Jackson and Sammie Stroughter. That shouldn't happen to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Williams this season. Stability at quarterback and the new offense could maximize his abilities.

Must step up: QB Dennis Dixon. Dixon and fellow senior quarterback Brady Leaf have shared the starting job since Kellen Clemens was injured during the 2005 season. Dixon took control of the QB position again during the spring, but he will miss voluntary summer workouts while playing minor league baseball. The dual-threat Dixon is the top choice at quarterback, but will he be ready to carry the team come fall?

Shoes to fill: C Enoka Lucas. Oregon will miss Lucas, a team leader who was a first-team All-Pac-10 selection. One option for replacing Lucas will be to move tackle Max Unger to center. The Ducks could also elevate Lucas' backup - Jeff Kendall - to first string.

Impact newcomer: WR Drew Davis. New offensive coordinator Chip Kelly proved at New Hampshire that he's not afraid to get creative with his offense, especially when it comes to his receivers. If the Ducks can't find secondary options beyond Jaison Williams, they could turn to the true freshman Davis. The newcomer was a Rivals250 member.

Position battle: Quarterback. The quarterback situation appeared to be settled at the end of spring, with Dixon firmly taking over the job. However, if the past in any indication, this position will still be worth watching. Dixon will be gone during voluntary seven-on-sevens while playing minor league baseball. Fellow senior Brady Leaf and sophomore Nathan Costa will benefit from extra time working with the receivers. Coaches believe Dixon will return as the No. 1 quarterback, but we'll know for sure by the end of fall practice.

New in 2007: Gary Crowton's offense put up big numbers last year, but the unit also struggled with turnovers. New coordinator Chip Kelly emphasized fundamentals to increase ball security during the spring. He gained something of a mad-scientist reputation at New Hampshire with his spread, no-huddle offense. However, some of his more creative ideas at UNH were based on necessity.

Grade the units:
QB: C-plus. Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf get a final chance to offer stability to the position. The pair combined for 18 interceptions last year.
RB: A. Behind star-in-waiting Jonathan Stewart is Jeremiah Johnson (644 yards, 10 touchdowns), who could start for many other teams.
WR/TE: B-minus. Jaison Williams is poised for an all-conference season. Brian Paysinger is a serviceable No. 2, but other options need to emerge.
OL: B-plus. The line returns three starters, but Oregon is looking for the right mix with second-team All-Pac-10 selection Max Unger a possibility at tackle or center.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Oregon ended last season on a four-game losing streak and allowed at least 30 points in each of those contests. The Ducks finished ninth in the conference in rush defense and scoring defense last season. Despite youth in the secondary, Oregon led the Pac-10 in pass defense and fielded two Rivals.com freshman All-Americans Jairus Byrd (first team) and Walter Thurmond (second team).

Best player: S Patrick Chung. Chung has become Oregon's most reliable defender, starting 25 games over the last two seasons. He has made at least 84 tackles each season. Oregon considered moving him to corner while breaking in freshman cornerbacks Byrd and Thurmond. That proved to be unnecessary, and Chung turned in another solid season.

Oregon Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Houston
Sept. 8 at Michigan
Sept. 15 Fresno State
Sept. 22 at Stanford
Sept. 29 California
Oct. 13 Washington State
Oct. 20 at Washington
Oct. 27 USC
Nov. 3 Arizona State
Nov. 15 at Arizona
Nov. 24 at UCLA
Dec. 1 Oregon State
Most overrated: DT David Faaeteete. Oregon hoped Faaeteete, a four-star prospect in 2004, would help offset the loss of first-round pick Haloti Ngata. That hasn't happened yet. Faaeteete started only six games last year. He has always been in the shadow of Ngata and former Ducks lineman Matt Toeaina. Now a senior, it's his last chance to prove that he has some staying power.

Most underrated: Chung. Rarely does Chung get mentioned as one of the top defensive backs in the conference. The presence of Daymeion Hughes and Antoine Cason - along with the USC's crop of DBs often causes Chung to be overlooked. Chung (84 tackles, four interceptions last year) has put together two solid seasons at Oregon and is starting to come into his own as a junior.

Must step up: LB John Bacon. The junior will try to take the spot of leading tackler Blair Phillips at middle linebacker, but there was a disparity of 103 stops between the two last season. Bacon, who had two tackles in 10 games last year, will have to produce in a hurry at a position that's thin.

Shoes to fill: LB Blair Phillips. Phillips stepped in as a junior college transfer and led the Ducks in tackles with 105 in his only full season as a starter.

Impact newcomer: DE William Tukuafu. Tukuafu, a four-star junior college transfer, should contribute opposite junior Nick Reed.

Position battle: Strongside linebacker/strong safety. The linebacker/safety hybrid spot in the 4-2-5 defense is up for grabs between senior Kwame Agyeman and speedy junior Jerome Boyd. Agyeman is the returning starter, and he made 43 tackles last year.

New in 2007: Last season was a rebuilding year for the Oregon defense. Now that the Ducks' two freshman cornerbacks have added experience, it should free up the rest of the defense. Senior Matthew Harper will be thrust into a starting role at free safety after projected starter Ryan DePalo was lost for the season to a torn ACL.

Grade the units:
DL: C-plus. End Nick Reed (3.5 sacks) is the top returner in a unit that needs to improve from last season.
LB: C. Blair Phillips is a major loss. John Bacon and A.J. Tuitele will need to step up to improve a porous run defense.
DB: A. Anchored by junior Patrick Chung, this will be the strength of the defense with up-and-comers Jairus Byrd, Walter Thurmond and Willie Glasper.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: At least kickoff returner Jonathan Stewart is still here. Oregon must replace its kicker, punter and punt returner. That might not be a bad thing. Former kicker Paul Martinez missed two field goals inside 35 yards in the final game last year against Oregon State. The Ducks' punt returners fumbled six times. New special teams coach Tom Osborne returned to Oregon after a stint at Arizona State.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Much of this season will depend on a rebound year from the defense and a steadier Dennis Dixon at quarterback. Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson are an imposing running back tandem. After sinking to 4-5 last year in the Pac-10, Oregon should join Cal and UCLA in chasing USC for the conference title. Oregon will be in the mix for the Sun or Holiday bowls once again.
Best player: KR Jonathan Stewart. Stewart has been among the best kickoff returners in the conference in his two years at Oregon, averaging 28.1 yards per return last year and 33.7 yards as a freshman.

Grade the units:
K: Incomplete. The kicking position will likely go to true freshman Daniel Padilla.
P: C. Josh Syria, who weighs in at 235 pounds, has bounced from Wofford to Central Washington and the amateur Evergreen Football League.
KR: A. Stewart can be just as dangerous a kick returner as running back.
PR: D. Competition is wide open after Patrick Chung and Jeremiah Johnson struggled to hang on to the ball.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Mike Bellotti is the dean of Pac-10 coaches with 97 wins in 12 seasons at Oregon. After a rebuilding year, the Ducks hope to be back in the thick of the Pac-10 race. There's little reason to doubt them. Oregon rebounded from a 5-6 season in 2004 to 10-2 in 2005. New offensive coordinator Chip Kelly is on a mission to cut down on the turnovers that doomed the Ducks last year. Osborne returned to the Ducks as tight ends and special teams coach.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: B. Bellotti remains one of the most successful Pac-10 coaches. In a down year, the Ducks still went to a bowl game.
Offense: B. Kelly's presence was felt immediately during the spring. Oregon will hope for the same results during the fall.
Defense: B-minus. Coordinator Nick Aliotti will have more to work with on defense this year, including a more experienced secondary.

Special teams: C-plus. Osborne, who coached at Oregon from 1995-2000, has his work cut out for him upon his return to Eugene.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 31.


 

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