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UO's Fife appears fit to fill Harrington's shoes

UO's Fife appears fit to fill Harrington's shoes Commentary

What was a burning debate during the spring has cooled to a clearly defined contest this month.

But that's not to say the questions will subside any time before Aug. 31, or, perhaps, at any time thereafter.

Jason Fife is definitely the man at quarterback for the University of Oregon football team right now and heading into the season, barring a collapse in fall camp this month or a magnificent performance from Kellen Clemens.

After Joey Harrington's eligibility expired at the conclusion of last season, Fife and Clemens began dueling for the top spot in spring practices.

A 12-for-15, 217-yard, four-touchdown showing in the spring game solidified Fife's No. — position on the depth chart.

I was really excited about Jason Fife's progress during the spring, head coach Mike Bellotti said. He infused confidence not just in our offense, but in our team as a whole.

Fife, a junior who redshirted as a true freshman, is entering his fourth year in the Ducks' system, while Clemens, a redshirt freshman, is beginning his second.

That disparity in experience seems to be the biggest difference between the two, and Oregon players made it apparent at Friday's media day that Fife is their guy.

Jason's doing a really good job, said Grants Pass native Mike DeLaGrange, a sophomore who began fall camp Saturday listed No. — at right tackle. At the quarterback position, you obviously have to be a leader. And I think Jason's doing a great job.

And with a group of skill players that are among the nation's best around him, the quarterback will have plenty of high-octane help.

Offensively, we're great, said senior Corey Chambers, who is penciled in at left guard and is the Ducks' most experienced offensive lineman.

We have so much talent. And it's not like at other schools, like USC, where there's just talent. We have heart. We have the willpower and the know-how, and we've been doing it for years.

Chambers is one of three returning starters on Oregon's annually underrated offensive line, and tailback Onterrio Smith and wide receivers Keenan Howry, Samie Parker and Jason Willis are all game-breakers.

Throw in capable new starters Matt Floberg at fullback and George Wrighster at tight end, and the product is a Ducks attack that should approach last season's gaudy statistics of 34.3 points and 436 yards per game.

At least, that's how the 6-foot-4, 224-pound Fife sees it.

We have a lot of weapons that we can utilize, and we're gonna utilize every single one of 'em, Fife said. Everybody's gonna make an impact.

TO MOST OBSERVERS, the 2001-02 season represented Oregon's chance at a national championship.

A No. 2 final ranking left the Ducks just short of realizing that dream.

With Harrington, cornerbacks Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith and three other 2002 NFL draft picks gone, the prevailing opinion is that Oregon is due for a letdown this season.

The first editions of The Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN polls reflect that view, with the Ducks No. 15 in both.

And the preseason Pac-10 media forecast has Oregon third behind Washington State and Washington, respectively.

The Ducks, however, are aiming their sights again on nothing less than the program's first-ever national title.

It's the stair-step approach that we always talk about, Bellotti said. We want to win every game one at a time, we want to win the conference, we want to go to the very best bowl game possible and we want to win the national championship.

We haven't backed off from those goals and we'll never back off from those goals, because if you do, I think you give everybody an out.

Oregon players, who know their program has won 27 of its last 30 games, which is bested only by Miami among the nation's 117 Division I programs, are used to being doubted.

It's the same story, different year, said Fife, who is not one of 36 returning lettermen compared to 30 a year ago. Every year, we get better and we prove ourselves. And the next year, it's just, we've gotta do the same thing.

People don't expect the Ducks to have a legacy like Miami or Florida, but it's there. And as players, we kinda just take it as, 'All right, well, we've gotta just go earn it again.'

AMONG THE 13 WALK-ONS in camp with the newcomers, who started practicing last Monday in advance of the full team's first workouts Saturday, were a couple players Southern Oregon Conference football fans know.

Dan Johnson, the 6-2, 292-pound 2002 graduate of North Medford, is trying to work his way into the Ducks' offensive-line mix. He has been issued No. 67 after an injury-plagued senior season with the Black Tornado kept him from a probable D-I scholarship.

The other SOC alumnus is Roseburg's Adam Hazel, a 6-3, 183-pound quarterback who was first-team all-conference for the champion Indians last fall.

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