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Previewing the Ducks: Quarterbacks

Since we're previewing all the other team in the conference, I suppose its time we start taking a look at our own team.  As the Ducks are the only team that truly matters, we are going to go into much more detail then with the other.  Since its the most visible position on the team, and perhaps the most concerning, we'll start at quarterback.

In talking about Duck football the last couple of weeks, I have heard one question more than any other:  will Dennis Dixon be any good this year?  When the nightmare that was the second half of last season happened, Dixon received more blame than anyone else for what happened.  And it wasn't without good reason.  In the first six games of last season, Dixon threw ten touchdowns and five interceptions--and Oregon went 5-1 in those games.  In Oregon's last seven games--including the horror that was the Las Vegas Bowl, Dixon threw only two touchdowns and a whopping nine picks.  It wasn't as if there was a lot of pressure on him--he was sacked only five times all year.  And it wasn't as if the competition was any tougher--in fact, the hard part of Oregon's schedule was over at that point.  However, what was toughest to take about that was that we knew Dixon was capable--physically, at least.  He has all the physical tools to be a great college quarterback.  But clearly what happened last year was a loss of confidence--one that just kept building and building until it spiraled out of control.  To be fair to Dixon, he wasn't the only player to go through this.  However, being the quarterback, who is both the most scrutinized player and leader of the team, he was the man to catch most of the heat.

Then things were compounded over the summer.  The Ducks got a new offensive coordinator, which means a new playbook.  However, instead of staying in Eugene to work out with his teammates, Dixon was in Florida, playing minor league baseball.  I have already stated why I thought that this was the best decision for Dennis.  However, he has been crucified by many Duck fans, who are convinced that this is a sign that Dixon is in line for another long season under center.  The fans weren't happy about it.  The coaches weren't happy about it.  And I'm sure some teammates haven't been happy about it.  So that's where Dixon starts his senior season at Oregon--with a lot to prove.

That being said, when speaking of Dixon's past, we must be fair and do so in its entirety.  We have to remember the first half of the season, when the whole offense looked amazing.  Remember the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma game, where Dixon cold-bloodedly led two scoring drives in the final two minutes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (insert replay official complaint here).  Remember 2005, after Kellen Clemens got hurt, when Dixon team with Brady Leaf to help the offense not miss a beat.  He completed 66% of his passes for 6 touchdowns and three interceptions that season.  Dixon has had success.  We KNOW that he is capable.  And that is exactly why we should feel good about the quarterback position in the upcoming season.

You see, before last season, the last time I remember being frustrated about quarterback play was when Jason Fife was at the helm.  The situation with Fife was totally different.  Fife never experienced nearly the success that Dixon has.  He had a severe problem with his throwing accuracy the moment he enrolled at Oregon, and was never able to overcome that.  Dixon is the opposite.  He had success from the time he started playing at Oregon, then ran into a rough spot.  He lost his confidence but, unlike lack of talent, confidence can be regained.  Now, its true that sometimes headcases are never cured.  But it is far more likely that Dixon gets his head straight than it would've been for Fife to all of a sudden become Joey Harrington.  Its easy to get caught up when you only have a week until your next game.  But Dixon has had eight months since that Vegas debacle.  Eight months to think about what he has accomplished.  And from what I've been hearing, Dixon has looked good in fall camp.  There is reason to believe that Dixon has his swagger back.  And Dixon, with his head on straight, is a good quarterback.  That has already been established.

I know what you are saying:  "Now Dave, but what if he hasn't gotten over it?  What if his head isn't on straight?"

I have to acknowledge that possibility.  While I'm doubting that will be the case, its entirely possible.  I'm guessing that we'll get by Houston regardless.  The true test will be when the Ducks visit The Big House.  If Dixon goes into a hostile environment in Ann Arbor and starts throwing picks, we have reason for concern.  Should that be the case, Bellotti would likely give him shots to redeem himself against Fresno St. and Stanford, before really having to make a decison going into the Cal game.

If Dixon were not to be right, then Bellotti needs to give Brady Leaf a shot to hold the job on his own.  He may not have the ceiling that Dixon has, but Leaf has been good in the time that he has played.  The Civil War, Leaf's only start, was by far the best game of the second half of last season.  Leaf has earned a shot to be the man by himself if Dixon proves not to be up to the challenge.  If Leaf starts at quarterback, this is still a top half of the conference team.  Just maybe not a second in the conference team, as Dixon's mobility is something that Leaf doesn't have.

Where this whole thing gets really murky is the following situation.  Dixon looks bad all the way up until the Cal game, and instead of handing the reins over to Dixon, Bellotti goes with the ol' two quarterback system.  That is the absolute worst case scenario.  2005 was the only time I have ever seen this work, and that even proved bad when Bellotti gave away the Holiday Bowl by being stubborn with it.  Dixon will be given the opportunity to be the man and lead this team.  But if he isn't up to the task, how can we expect Brady Leaf to adequately perform that task if he's having to look over his shoulder every series.  That is the worst thing that can happen to this offense.

I've heard a few people who want to give Nathan Costa a shot, but that's just asinine.

There are three other factors at play that I think will take a lot of pressure of the quarterbacks and allow them a chance to perform:

  1.  There is only one starter loss on an offensive line that allowed Dixon to be sacked only five times last year.  This should again be a stellar group.
  2.  Bellotti pledges to use his running backs more, getting more touches for Stewart and Johnson, and allowing them to be in the backfield together at the same time.  Bellotti has the Cadillac, hopefully, he's learning how to drive it.
  3.  The defense can't possibly be as injured as it was last year, meaning there will be less pressure on the offense to win games by themselves.
I have confidence that Dixon will be back to himself this season.  But even if not, there's still reason to be optimistic that the QB position will be better than last season.  After all, it couldn't be any worse.