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Ducks feel primed for another run at Pac-10 title

EUGENE ' Mike Bellotti kept coming back to variations of one term during his media-day remarks Friday afternoon.

The same phrase is an apt description for what's building inside University of Oregon football fans as the Ducks' Aug. 31 season-opener creeps ever closer.

Excitement.

That's what Bellotti said he feels about a lot of things entering his eighth season in charge, from Oregon's overall prospects coming off an 11-1 season to the position battles starting today in practices, most notably at quarterback and cornerback.

I'm probably more excited about this season than any we've had in the past, said Bellotti, who has guided the Ducks to more wins in his seven seasons than any other program in the Pac-10. One, because of our success last year and the attention that it's gotten us, but more because we probably have a few more questions about personnel and the people who are gonna play.

I believe, honestly, we have the solutions on this team (for the question marks). ... Our goal is not to take a step backward at all. Our goal is not necessarily to worry about defending a conference championship, but to aggressively go seek another one.

Gone, of course, from last season's squad, which finished No. 2 in the national rankings after a 38-16 rout of Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, is quarterback Joey Harrington.

The No. — pick of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, Harrington finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting last season and left Oregon as perhaps the school's most famous athlete, ever.

Jason Fife and Kellen Clemens are dueling to replace Harrington, with Fife beginning camp today listed No. — on the depth chart.

Fife is a 6-foot-4, 224-pound junior, while Clemens is a 6-2, 220-pound redshirt freshman.

Although Fife has thrown just nine passes and played in only four games as a Duck, his teammates expressed faith Friday in his ability to get the job done this season.

I have a lot of confidence in Fife and what he can do, said senior rover Rasuli Webster, who is one of Oregon's 13 returning starters (six on defense, five on offense and both kicking specialists).

Fife, a laid-back native of Lake Elsinore, Calif., who had a cameo role in The Adams Family as a kid, is ready to get started.

It's just a matter of performing, said Fife, who redshirted in 1999 and went 12-of-15 for 217 yards and four touchdowns in the Ducks' spring game to solidify his hold on the starting spot. I've been here three years now, so if I don't know the system, I'm in trouble.

Andy Ludwig, formerly of Fresno State, is Oregon's new offensive coordinator, replacing Jeff Tedford, who is now Cal's head coach. The Ducks' system, however, remains the same, except for a few possible wrinkles.

Also still intact are Oregon's top four wide receivers from a year ago, led by senior Keenan Howry, who needs 30 catches to become the Ducks' all-time receptions leader. The third-team All-American caught 52 passes for 682 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior.

Junior Samie Parker (41 catches for 748 yards and four scores) and senior Jason Willis (43 for 448 and no scores) give Oregon three top-caliber threats.

Those three are so electrifying, Webster said.

And then there's Onterrio Smith.

The junior tailback, coming off 1,058 rushing yards as a back-up in 2001, has made 2,000 yards his goal for this fall.

Onterrio's gonna get yards on his own; we just have to help him out a little bit, says senior left guard Corey Chambers, one of three returning starters along the offensive line. I think (2,000) is very feasible.

That's exactly what Smith has been saying ever since the 2001 campaign concluded.

I need about 175 a game, said the 5-10, 204-pound dynamo. With this offensive line ... it's very possible.

Helping with that quest will be Grants Pass graduate Mike Delagrange, who opens fall camp listed No. — at right tackle.

I'm looking forward to the season a lot, said Delagrange, one of the biggest Ducks at 6-6, 345 pounds. Almost everybody stayed in Eugene this summer. ... We know that (No.) 2's not good enough.

The defense is headed up by a front seven ' four defensive linemen plus three linebackers in Oregon's standard set ' that, potentially, could be among the program's best ever.

North Medford alumnus Seth McEwen is a three-year starter at defensive end.

The other returning starters are Darrell Wright at defensive end, David Moretti and Kevin Mitchell at linebacker, Keith Lewis at free safety and Webster, as aforementioned, at free safety.

They are bolstered by an impressive group of underclassmen and newcomers, including freshman tackle Haloti Ngata, who was ranked by some as the No. — prep prospect in the country last year and was called the real deal by Bellotti on Friday (newcomers began practicing Monday).

The defense is really nice, said McEwen, a 6-5, 266-pound senior who was honorable all-Pac-10 in 2001.

The question marks are at cornerback, where Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith ' both now of the NFL ' starred a year ago.

Experienced junior Steven Moore is penciled in on the left side, with redshirt freshman Justin Phinisee topping the right depth chart.

A renovated Autzen Stadium, which hosts eight home games this season, will be unveiled Aug. 31 in the opener against Mississippi State.

And then the excitement really starts.

Reach reporter Tim Pyle at 776-4483 or e-mail