The Quiet Affirmation

Mike Bellotti faces the media (Photo/S. Summers)

Media Day held Tuesday for the University of Oregon football program was noticeably different this year from those in the past. And, I'm not talking about the new venue – the plush Stadium Club facility in Autzen Stadium instead of the Pittman Room in the Casanova Center.

This year there was no talk of Heisman Trophy candidates or repeating as conference champions or the Bowl Championship Series. There wasn't even any discussion about why the national pollsters weren't paying the team its requisite level of respect. The event appeared to be devoid of all hubris.

How refreshing.

I had to read through the media guide to find that Oregon still held the best overall win-loss record in the Pac-10 Conference over the previous nine seasons, that the Ducks have participated in seven bowl games over the last eight years, that coach Mike Bellotti is now the longest-tenured head football coach in the conference and has guided his team to more overall wins (67-29) during his tenure than any other school.

I really got the feeling that the Oregon players and coaches take last year's 7-6 record, capped by a 38-17 loss to Wake Forest in the Seattle Bowl, as a matter that not only requires serious introspection, but a new attitude and renewed commitment. It was from this more subdued mood, this more open humility that I detected a steady resolve emerging. Call it a quiet affirmation.

"You have to earn respect," said Bellotti. "We're back, in my estimation, in the earning mode or working mode. I think it's very important this year that we play with an attitude, that we play with a chip on our shoulder, that we become the hunter. We've been the hunted for a couple of years and as such maybe loss a little bit of the stay hungry attitude that we had developed over the course of many seasons."

What Oregon has developed over the course of many seasons is a quality program. Everything from the coaching staff to the facilities to the graduation rates to the team's performance on the field would indicate that the Ducks have achieved the highest possible quality rating. And, the fact is quality teams may have off seasons, bumps in the road or whatever you want to call it, but don't plunge into seven years of famine following one substandard year. I think people who believe Oregon's best football years are behind them will be pleasantly surprised this year. Sure, the Ducks may not win the conference championship or finish in the Top 10 in the nation, but I expect them to improve over last year, and yes, attend their seventh consecutive bowl game. Part of improving over last year is first knowing what went wrong and then having the tools and coaching staff necessary to fix it.

"I think it was just a little bit too easy in the first half of the season," said Bellotti speaking of last year. "We did what we needed to. We won a couple of close games. We were 6-0, ranked 6th in the nation. We had a quarterback first or second in the nation in passing efficiency and it just seemed like it was going to roll along. And then, when adversity hit, we didn't have the wherewithal to stop it. I just sensed that we needed greater personal commitment, maybe greater team toughness."

The Ducks are looking hard at the third quarters they played last year. Their opponents who were typically outscored in the first half (255-173) were able to make the necessary adjustments and outscore the Ducks in the third quarter (113-73). This swing in momentum often extended into the finish of the games particularly in the second half of the season.

"We actually have done a couple of studies just on the third quarter," said Bellotti. "What we've called, what defensive opponents have called, what occurred? We just need to finish. We really need to find how to finish games. That's a combination of mental toughness, trust and ultimate performance."

Say what you will, but the building blocks are there for Oregon. The Ducks return eight offensive starters and six defensive starters. This points to the fact that the Ducks were a relatively young team last year. The additional year of experience brings a new level of maturity to this squad that could steel their resolve and deliver the toughness Bellotti is asking for. Furthermore, Oregon's strength would appear to be at the line of scrimmage, both sides. All five starting offensive linemen return and there is a sixth letterman returning on the squad. On the defensive side of the line the Ducks return league standouts Haloti Ngata and Igor Olshandsky. In addition, Junior Siavii, Robby Valenzuela and Quinn Dorsey have all seen significant action. A bevy of emerging talent including Devan Long, Darius Sanders and Chris Solomona joins these players.

"The most solid part of the team is both the lines of scrimmage,' said Bellotti. "Both groups should be very strong and very good and hopefully that initiates the level of play that we want. We have a chance (on the offensive line) to put big bodies on the field that are experienced and play pretty well. That gives your offense a chance for success when the game starts at the line of scrimmage."

Remember, the offensive line has to practice against the defensive line and vice-versa. It is unusual to have both lines so highly competent in the same year. It may be following fall camp they may never find any opposing lines that can give them any more competition than their own teammates.

Everyone wants to talk quarterback controversy at Oregon. The truth may be that this position is also a strength of the team. Bellotti acknowledged that quarterbacks, senior Jason Fife and sophomore Kellen Clemens, are "equal." He also said that he didn't know when one would emerge as the starter. It could be in fall camp, in the first game or in the middle of the season. Bellotti also didn't rule out splitting playing time between both quarterbacks throughout the year. The fact that Bellotti has two quality quarterbacks to choose from bodes well for the team particularly given what Bellotti had to say about Fife who started all regular season games last year.

"Jason Fife's statistics are better than Joey Harrington's for a junior year," said Bellotti. "He passed for more touchdowns, was a higher rated quarterback, (with) greater passing efficiency."

But Harrington was a winner, a leader who no matter the circumstances could find a way to win. He had that mental toughness Bellotti keeps talking about in spades.

The Oregon pass defense was definitely an Achilles heel for the team last year. The Ducks were ranked 115th in the nation in the statistic with many teams simply shredding Oregon's new cornerback starters then junior Steven Moore and true freshman Aaron Gipson. Both these players have another year under their belt and a new defensive secondary coach, John Neal, to lead them.

"On the defensive side of the ball we talked about the fact that we need to play better pass defense," said Bellotti. "This is a total team commitment, not just a particular position although we certainly want to see better play at the cornerback position and we brought in an infusion of junior college talent and high school speed to that position."

Bellotti is speaking of transfers Marc Walker and Rodney Woods, both highly decorated junior college players, and incoming freshman Ryan Gilliam and Kyle Weatherspoon who both possess 10.6 second 100 meter speed or better. Lucky for the Ducks, it has been my understanding, that cornerback is one position in college football that doesn't necessarily require years of experience or extensive knowledge of the playbook to be immediately effective. It is more of a position of isolation that requires innate skills that can be displayed very early. This is why many Oregon great cornerbacks of the past could come in and play the position very early in their careers including players such as Alex Molden, Kenny Wheaton and Rashad Bauman. Perhaps one of the newcomers has this kind of ability and perhaps one more year of experience can spell all the difference for the players who faced trial by fire last year.

I think the quiet affirmation that appears to be percolating at Oregon this fall could go a long way towards establishing what Bellotti calls the necessary "chemistry, camaraderie and commitment that makes great teams." Today, there is no boast, no hype, no heightened expectations, just a look in the eye, a modest courtesy that doesn't belie the true underlying traits of a quality program made up of quality individuals.

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