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Young Ducks Emerge As New Stars

It's halftime. A good time to relax, regroup and reflect.

Oregon's 2009 football season is rich with story lines. Chip Kelly's first season as a head coach. All the pre-season hype. The disaster that was Boise, compounded by LeGarrette Blount's post-game MMA display and subsequent suspension. A skin-of-the-teeth win over a Purdue team that clearly isn't very good. A better win over Utah, where the Ducks overcame adversity created mostly by themselves. More off-field news as The Blount Plan continues to evolve amid mixed support and criticism. Three conference wins later, it's game on.

No story, however, is more compelling than the play of Ducks youngsters, back-ups and first-year starters. Oregon's post-Boise success has been led by many of the guys we expected would play well: Masoli, Dickson, Maehl, Thurmond, Matthews and Paysinger. It also is the result of hard work put in by a whole new group of Ducks who are becoming household names among even casual Duck fans. With some time to kill during the bye week, now seems the perfect time to contemplate how these players have stepped up to lead the Ducks back to prominence.

LaMichael James (RB, Freshman) - Is anyone else as jacked as I am that we still get three more years of this kid? He's the lightning all right, and he's helping Oregon thrive without much thunder. James has 581 net yards on 92 carries - 6.3 yards per carry. He's punched in four TDs. LaMichael is a threat from anywhere on the field. His spin move is quickly becoming a "signature", and I thought he was just one cut away from going about 95 yards against UCLA.

Javes Lewis (ROV, Sophomore) - Lewis had big shoes to fill this season. In fact, clown shoes big. So far so good. One INT, one huge fumble recovery and return for a TD against Purdue, two forced fumbles, and he's tied for second on the team with 37 tackles. And that blow-up of UCLA QB Richard Brehaut...I thought the kid might not get up.

Kenny Rowe
(DE, Junior) - Be honest. Did you really expect this kind of production from Kenny Rowe? He's crushing opposing QBs, with 6.5 sacks, tied for second in the Pac-10. He had seven tackles against UCLA. Rowe has forced three fumbles. How will the Ducks replace Nick Reed? We have our answer, and he's a game changer.

Kenjon Barner (RB, Freshman) - Maybe Barner will be a cornerback again at some point. Right now, he's doing a fantastic job of being ball carrier. Barner ranks second on the team with 467 all-purpose yards: 178 rushing, 46 punt return, 236 kick return, and a handful of receiving yards. He's found the end zone twice. There have been many big plays in Oregon's six games. Few more timely or more important than Barner's 100-yard kick return to open the second half of a must-win road game against UCLA.

John Boyett (FS, Freshman) - If it weren't for Blount's blow-up after the loss to Boise St., the injury to T.J. Ward would've been THE source of post-game pain for Duck fans. Now we wonder out loud whether we're eager to see Boyett come off the field when Ward is ready to go. Let me remind you why... Boyett trails only Casey Matthews for tackles. His two interceptions have come late in games, effectively sealing the deal both times. He appears to be a heady player with veteran smarts, good cover skills and the ability to make open field tackles. Boyett's reaction and subsequent play on a Purdue receiver sealed a much needed win and provided the team with the momentum and confidence they needed to rise above the slow start.

Eddie Pleasant & Josh Kaddu (SLB, Sophomore x 2) - These two bring speed and intensity to Oregon's defense, and will do so for two more seasons. Pleasant has 22 tackles, an interception and a nose for fumble recoveries - three so far. Kaddu has 18 tackles, including three for losses. When you talk about the sudden emergence of a defense at Oregon and Nick Aliotti having the flexibility to run multiple fronts, the discussion has to include these two up-and-coming stars.

Jackson Rice (P, Freshman) - He's the punter. Not a lot of glory there, but Rice has been solid and then some. Sure, he's shanked a couple. He's one year removed from high school football. Through six games, Rice is averaging 39.3 yards a punt. He has the look of a guy who may be averaging 45 yards a couple seasons down the road. More than one-third of Rice's punts land inside the opponent's 20, and yet he's had just one touchback. He has five punts over 50 yards.

Mark Asper (RG, So.), Carson York (LG, Fr.), Nick Cody (OL, Fr.), Darrion Weems (OL, So.) - The rapid maturation of Oregon's offensive line would not be happening without these underclassmen stepping up. Asper and York are solid starters. Cody and Weems are seeing considerable playing time and look like future starters. Oregon's offensive machine sputters if this group isn't on top of their game. The growth we've seen along Oregon's offensive line since the opening game is nothing short of remarkable.

There are others worth mentioning, but I'll leave those for the group to comment on. Stop. Think about it for a moment. Relish it. We're in the midst of what could be a special season. At the same time, the future of Oregon football appears to be as bright as those crazy yellow jerseys.