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July 28, 2008

Oregon defense needs to produce

LOS ANGELES Leave it to Oregon to try a new look.

One week the Ducks wear their understated all-white uniforms. The next week they sport the yellow highlighter-style threads.

In the same way, offense in Eugene is so last season.

Oregon doesn't expect its offense to flop in 2008, but the onus to win games early will be on the Ducks' defense instead.

Quarterback Dennis Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart both emerged in coordinator Chip Kelly's up-tempo spread offense last season to take the Ducks to an 8-1 start before injuries derailed the season. With Dixon and Stewart gone, Oregon will have to count on the defense to give the new quarterback and running back time to work out the kinks.

Don't be surprised if Oregon's top playmakers are on the other side of the ball.

"The playmaker thing is a difference," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "We're not going to try to contain people. We're going to try to attack people."

The Ducks' defense created its share of big plays last year but allowed its share, too. They led the Pac-10 in tackles for a loss and were second to rival Oregon State in forcing turnovers. They also allowed 382 yards per game.

The Ducks return three third-year starters in a secondary that intercepted 17 passes. Oregon also returns All-Pac-10 defensive end Nick Reed's 22.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.

"We were bend but don't break," safety Patrick Chung said. "We're trying not to bend this year."

Chung is the clear leader in a secondary that has become the strength of the defense. Chung and cornerbacks Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond are beginning their third season as starters. Junior T.J. Ward will get the first crack at the free safety spot vacated by Matthew Harper.

Ward will step into a group of defensive backs that is as comfortable with each other as any unit in the league.

"We don't even have to talk," said Chung, who had two interceptions and a team-leading 117 tackles last year. "I'll say one word and they know what I'm talking about. We have that feeling."

While offensive coordinator Kelly rose from obscurity at New Hampshire to possible head coaching candidate in one year in Eugene, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is a polar opposite. He's on his second stint as defensive coordinator at Oregon and has quietly become one of the best assistants in the Pac-10.

Like Kelly, though, he has a penchant for unpredictability.

"You never know what coach Aliotti is going to do," Chung said. "He might blitz everybody or drop everybody back. He keeps teams on their heels."

Oregon will have to keep other teams' offenses on their heels while the Ducks find their offensive footing.

The Ducks go into the fall looking for a replacement for Dixon. There are as many as five candidates, but it seems to be a two-man race between Justin Roper and Nate Costa. Roper passed for 180 yards in the Sun Bowl win over USF but didn't win the job outright in the spring while Costa recovered from a torn ACL.

If healthy, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore Costa could pick up where Dixon left off something he would have done if not for the knee injury last season.

"This is a quarterback who behaves like a middle linebacker," Bellotti said. "Our offense would not have changed that much if Nate Costa stepped in for Dennis Dixon."

At running back, Bellotti will try to continue his tradition of splitting the job between two capable backs.

Jeremiah Johnson is the incumbent after rushing for 1,135 yards in three seasons. He is also coming off a knee injury but is recovering faster than anticipated. Bellotti said Johnson ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash in June. Teaming with Johnson will be junior college transfer LeGarrette Blount, who is a power runner in the mold of former Ducks running back Reuben Droughns.

"They will complement each other," Bellotti said. "I see them playing at the same time. I see them protecting each other in the fourth quarter and pushing each other through the second half of the season."

For now, it's the first half of the season that Bellotti is worried about, starting with the opener against Washington. If Oregon has its way, it will be a low-scoring contest.

"I see a lot of positive things about the offense and the defense," Chung said. "I think we're going to have a great team. It's a season to watch out for."

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

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