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UO set to take next step

Offensive arsenal keys Quack Attack

EUGENE - They've been picked to win the Pac-10 Conference and have been ranked as high as fifth in the nation.

Their quarterback is a Heisman Trophy candidate whose picture appears on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, not to mention a 100-foot tall billboard in New York City.

Their coach recently appeared on ESPN radio.

Every time you turn around, the University of Oregon football team is receiving national attention.

That's what happens when you rattle off a 10-2 record, a share of the conference championship and a bowl game victory over Texas, as the Ducks did a year ago.

The question now is, can the Ducks take their game to yet another level and contend for a national championship?

"That's our goal," coach Mike Bellotti told a large group of reporters and sportscasters at the team's annual media day Friday. "We've earned the position we're in and that has put us under the microscope and under more pressure than we've ever been in.

"But it's a positive type of pressure and I think our guys are ready to deal with it. They think they can win every game."

The Ducks head into their season-opener against Wisconsin on Sept. — with some big question marks, namely a defense that returns only four starters and new faces at punter and placekicker.

But with a high-octane offense fueled by senior quarterback Joey Harrington and a favorable schedule, the Ducks could find themselves in the Bowl Championship Series, the Rose Bowl - or both - come January.

Harrington, who finds himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week along with Oregon State running back Ken Simonton, led the Pac-10 in total offense last season at 256.3 yards per game while compiling 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Harrington is one of eight returning starters on an Oregon offense that also includes tailback Maurice Morris, fullback Josh Line, wide receiver Keenan Howry and tight end Justin Peele.

Bellotti believes the Ducks' attack could be the best he's had in his 12 years at Oregon, and that includes the 1989 group that sent seven players to the professional ranks when Bellotti was the team's offensive coordinator.

"There certainly is a lot of talent on that side of the ball," he says.

"I think our skill kids match up with just about anyone."

Harrington concurs.

"In my five years here I've never seen this much football talent assembled in one place," the 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior says. "I'm very, very excited."

Harrington is being trumpeted as a Heisman Trophy candidate and has been inundated with national media attention throughout the summer. His name recognition got a big boost last month when a group of Oregon alumni spent $80,000 to have his picture plastered on a 13-story building in downtown Manhattan, not far from where the Heisman Trophy ceremony is held.

"It's a little embarrassing, to be honest," Harrington says. "But it's great publicity for the state. It brings a ton of positive exposure to the state of Oregon."

Harrington says that with all the talent that surrounds him on the Oregon offense, he doesn't feel any added pressure.

"It's not like I have to go out and throw for 300 or 400 yards every game," he says. "We've got so many weapons that can kill a defense."

One of those weapons is Morris, a 6-foot, 208-pound senior who ran for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns last season, third-best in the Pac-10.

Bellotti says Morris was overworked in 2000 and that caused him to wear down late in the year, a factor that coincided with the team's offensive slump late in the season.

This year, Bellotti plans to spell Morris more often with junior Allan Amundson and sophomore Onterrio Smith, a talented transfer from Tennessee.

Smith's availability is uncertain due to his arrest on charges of drunk driving and driving with a suspended license last week - Bellotti has declined comment until he gathers more information on the matter - but if that means more carries for Amundson, that's not a bad thing.

Amundson stunned the coaches last week when he ran an electronically-timed 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That's easily the fastest time ever recorded by an Oregon player, the next-fastest being a 4.42 by wide receiver Patrick Johnson, who now plays for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

Thinking that the equipment might have malfunctioned, the coaches had the 5-9, 185-pound Amundson run again, and he clocked 4.37.

Electronic times add about 2/10ths of a second, so Amundson ran the equivalent of a 4.13 hand-timed 40 the first time around.

"He's THAT quick," Bellotti says of Amundson, "and we obviously need to get him the ball more."

Smith, 20, said Friday he was acting "immature" when he was arrested earlier this week. He will make his first court apperance Aug. 21.

Howry is Oregon's other marquee skill position player. Although smallish at 5-10 and 170 pounds, Howry gathered in 52 catches for 780 yards and five TDs last season and figures to be Harrington's main go-to guy now that Marshaun Tucker is gone.

Defensively, Oregon must replace three linemen and all three of its linebackers, but the Ducks boast one of the top secondaries in the nation and that's a welcomed commodity in the pass-happy Pac-10.

Cornerbacks Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith and strong safety Rasuli Webster all return to the defensive backfield as starters. Keith Lewis, the only true freshman to see significant playing time for the Ducks last season, takes over at free safety.

The rebuilding project is the front seven of the defense, where only end Seth McEwen, a junior from North Medford High, returns as a starter.

Not that there's an absence of talent. In fact, Bellotti believes the linebacking crew of Wesley Mallard, Kevin Mitchell and David Moretti could be the fastest and most athletic he's had at Oregon.

Bellotti is especially high on Moretti, who will step in at middle linebacker for the departed Matt Smith.

"Moretti has better physical gifts than Matt did," Bellotti says. "If he can match Matt's ability to be around the football, he could be one of the best we've had."

As for the kicking game, junior college transfer Jose Arroyo has emerged as the No. — punter while junior transfer David Rosenberg and freshman Jared Siegel are waging a close battle for the placekicking job. Rosenberg once thumped a 59-yard field goal during a high school game.

The Ducks' schedule, meanwhile, is favorable. Six of their 11 games are at home, and if they can get past Wisconsin in their opener, it's not unreasonable to think they could be 9-0 heading into their final two games - against UCLA at the Rose Bowl and Oregon State at Autzen Stadium.

Oregon fans can hardly wait for the opening whistle.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com