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Ducks relish role as underdogs

Oregon eager to put woes of 2002 season behind as it gears up for another title run in the Pac-10 Conference

EUGENE ' Five steps forward.

One step back.

Time for another leap forward.

Coming off its worst season since 1996, the Oregon football program is primed for a return to the Pacific-10 Conference's elite this fall, according to all Ducks in attendance at the annual media day Tuesday at Autzen Stadium.

— With last season's 1-6 finish to a 7-6 campaign lingering like a horrific hangover, Oregon begins fall practice today, determined to prove itself all over again come the Aug. 30 season-opener at Mississippi State.

I can guarantee that we will be a whole lot better, says senior cornerback Steven Moore. As a defense, as a whole, as everything, we will be better.

To a man, the Ducks say they are excited to be back in the underdog role they played so well during their rise to prominence beginning with the 1989 team's 8-4, Independence Bowl-winning season.

I know I'll respond better to it, says head coach Mike Bellotti, 67-29 with seven bowl appearances in eight complete years at Oregon. I will have a vehemence, an attitude that I think I can get across to the team better than maybe being the hunted and the defending champion and all that.

Obviously, we would love to (win the Pac-10 again). But there's a certain part of me, and a certain part of everybody, that the underdog role energizes you, invigorates you, angers you a little bit. And we have to earn the respect that we deserve.

The Ducks also believe they have resolved the leadership void and complacency issues that may have sabotaged the 2002 squad.

Team chemistry, senior linebacker Kevin Mitchell says of the difference between now and then. That's what we were missing ' team chemistry and the leaders to go with it.

Quarterbacks Jason Fife and Kellen Clemens, offensive linemen Joey Forster and Dan Weaver, defensive tackle Igor Olshansky, linebacker Mitchell and defensive backs Keith Lewis and Moore have been among those pushing and prodding during intense off-season workouts.

Last year was a letdown for everybody, says junior right tackle Mike DeLaGrange, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound Grants Pass native. We have a whole different attitude this year.

DeLaGrange and the offensive line are expected to join the defensive line as Duck strengths this fall.

Senior right guard Forster (6-4, 284), senior center Weaver (6-5, 282), junior left tackle Adam Snyder (6-6, 310), junior left guard Nick Steitz (6-4, 305) and versatile junior Robin Knebel (6-6, 316), a Roseburg product, all have starting experience.

Along the defensive front, tackles Olshansky (6-6, 305, jr.) and Haloti Ngata (6-4, 339, so.) project as a pair as good as any in the country, and their back-ups, Junior Siavii (6-4, 323, sr.) and Robby Valenzuela (6-2, 290, jr.), are good enough to start most places. Ends Chris Solomona (6-5, 275, jr.), Quinn Dorsey (6-4, 270, sr.), Devan Long (6-4, 258, so.) and Darius Sanders (6-5, 265, so.) are to be counted upon for an improved pass rush.

The most solid part of our team is both lines of scrimmage, says Bellotti, now the Pac-10's longest-tenured head coach.

Questions abound elsewhere, such as:

Who will replace Onterrio Smith at tailback?

Who will join senior speedster Samie Parker at wide receiver?

Who will emerge at tight end?

Is the secondary any better, coming off a season in which the Ducks ranked 115th out of 117 NCAA Division I teams against the pass?

Are there speedy, smart linebackers to join second-team all-Pac-10 pick Mitchell?

And, of course, who will start at quarterback, Fife or Clemens?

Oregon is confident all the doubts will be buried with time.

We've got a lot of unknowns, says Clemens, the 6-2, 214-pound sophomore who shared time with Fife, a 6-4, 222-pound senior, in the season-ending Seattle Bowl loss to Wake Forest. We'll have to wait and see how it all shakes out. But I do know one thing ' we're terribly underestimated.

Which is just how the Ducks like it.

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