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It's all about the quarterback.
Any caution, apprehension and/or pessimism about the Oregon Ducks stems from uncertainty at the quarterback position after Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team.
The Ducks now turn to either fifth-year senior Nate Costa, a better passer than Masoli, or sophomore Darron Thomas, who may be Masoli's equal as a runner. If either can flourish, the Ducks should rise among the elite in college football.
The Ducks are loaded, or at least solid, everywhere else. They have a strong line, an explosive running back, a productive receiver and a good defense.
Oregon appears to have the components to post a double-digit victory total for the third consecutive season and for the fourth time in six seasons. If everything works out right, the Ducks could challenge for the national title.
THE SCHEME: The Ducks use a run-oriented spread option.
STAR POWER: Sophomore RB LaMichael James posted the nation's seventh-highest rushing total (1,546 yards) last season even though he barely touched the football in the first two games. He became the Ducks' primary back in the third game and responded with his first of six 150-yard games. James is small but shifty, and he has great speed. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and ripped off 20 plays that covered at least 20 yards. He'll be running behind an experienced, proven line, so expect similar production even though he's suspended for the season opener against New Mexico.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman K Alejandro Maldonado could become a key figure for the Ducks' success this season. One of Oregon's primary concerns is replacing departed K Morgan Flint, who converted 16-of-19 field goals in '09. No kicker on the roster has converted a college field goal. The strong-legged Maldonado was an all-league kicker at Colton (Calif.) High and rarely had kickoffs returned.
STRONGEST AREA: All five starters return from a line that was one of the most productive in the country in '09; the returning quintet started 63 of a possible 65 games last season. Oregon ranked among the nation's top 10 in rushing offense (231.7 yards per game) and sacks allowed (13). Gs Mark Asper and Carson York and T Bo Thran are all-conference candidates.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The dismissal of Masoli, now at Ole Miss, turned quarterback from a position of strength to one of uncertainty. Oft-injured senior Costa and little-used sophomore Thomas are competing for the starting job. Costa has completed just 25 passes in his college career, but he is considered a good passer. That will benefit the Ducks, who need to get the ball more frequently to talented WR Jeff Maehl. The more athletic Thomas almost led Oregon to a comeback win over Boise State as a true freshman in '08, but he sat out as a redshirt last season.
THE SCHEME: The Ducks use a 4-3 set, and coordinator Nick Aliotti is known for his aggressiveness.
STAR POWER: E Kenny Rowe established himself as one of the nation's premier pass rushers during a breakout season in '09. He had 11.5 sacks, which was more than his total number of tackles the previous year. The soft-spoken Rowe also had 43 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles. He's on preseason watch lists for all the major defensive awards.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: It would come as no surprise if true freshman Ricky Heimuli gets into the rotation at defensive tackle right away. Heimuli, a 6-foot-4, 318-pounder, was a four-star prospect and the nation's No. 8 player at his position. The Ducks are thin and inexperienced at that position.
STRONGEST AREA: Oregon is so deep at linebacker that Eddie Pleasant, last season's starter on the strongside, has moved to strong safety. Returning starters Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews will contend for postseason honors. Junior Josh Kaddu, who was injured last season, is the likely starter at the other outside spot. Coaches also are high on senior Bryson Littlejohn and sophomore Michael Clay, who is short (5-11) but has great speed.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: T Brandon Bair is a warhorse in the middle, but the Ducks' interior depth is a concern. No other defensive tackle on the roster made more than 18 tackles last season, and freshmen need to provide depth.
Backup TB Kenjon Barner is a burner and a threat to go the distance on punt and kickoff returns. He returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against UCLA last season. Barner averaged 24.9 yards on kickoff returns and 10.5 yards on punt returns. P Jackson Rice is coming off a solid season in which he averaged 40.5 yards per kick and dropped 23 inside the opponents' 20. The Ducks are good in coverage, too. But kicking is a major area of concern with Flint's departure. He'll be replaced by either Maldonado, a true freshman, or sophomore Rob Beard, whose only '09 field-goal attempt was blocked.
A non-conference schedule of New Mexico, Tennessee and FCS member Portland State doesn't seem too challenging. Neither do road trips to Arizona State and Washington State in the first half of the season. The red flags are trips to USC and California. The Ducks have been blown out in their past two trips to USC and have lost three in a row in Berkeley. Oregon also plays archrival Oregon State in Corvallis. But the Ducks get a break with a home game against Stanford, which upset Oregon 51-42 last season.
With a load of starters back from a 10-win Pac-10 championship team, the Ducks were considered heavy favorites to win another conference crown and were seen as legitimate contenders for the national title. But that was before Masoli was suspended, then ultimately dismissed from the team for a series of off-field issues. Any team would be weakened by losing its starting quarterback, particularly one that some felt could be a Heisman contender. But Oregon still projects to be of championship caliber. The offensive line is one of the best in the country, and James is among the nation's most explosive running backs. If the defense, which was up-and-down in '09, is more consistent, the Ducks will be in the thick of the Pac-10 race as long as the quarterback situation doesn't become a major liability. If Costa or Thomas prove to be effective, Oregon could be even better than it was last season.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.