Ready for next step
EUGENE — Going from fifth-string quarterback to the Pac-10 Conference's third-most efficient passer and eighth-leading rusher in a matter of months was quite a feat last year for Jeremiah Masoli.
But to hear the second-year Oregon football player tell it, the best is yet to come.
"Last fall I was still trying to learn guys' names and it was a whole different world for me," says the junior, who transferred from City College of San Francisco after leading it to a national title in 2007. "This year my mind isn't all over the place."
The distractions of not knowing where he was going to live or finding roommates are now behind him. The adjustment of being away from home for the first extended period in his life has been made, and he's already weathered the shock of moving from junior college to the major college level.
Now it's all just about playing football, and that added comfort level should only help Masoli as he continues to blossom.
"I'm able to focus more now, and when I'm out there I'm trying to make better plays instead of just trying to learn the play," adds Masoli, who turns 21 on Monday.
The 5-foot-11, 214-pounder enters this season as a preseason first-team all-Pac 10 selection by several publications after completing 136 of 239 passes for 1,744 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Masoli also set a single-season record for an Oregon quarterback by rushing for 718 yards and 10 scores on 127 attempts. The old mark of 644 yards was set in 1979 by Reggie Ogburn.
"He's amazing," LeGarrette Blount says in describing Masoli. "He's one of the best athletes I've ever played with. He's a playmaker and a dual-threat quarterback that any team in the country would love to have. Luckily we've got him and now he's giving that same thing he did in junior college to us."
Masoli took some criticism last year for maybe being a little too quick to pull the ball down and run with it instead of hanging in the pocket, but Oregon head coach Chip Kelly says that instinct was only natural as a young QB in the system.
"It's easier for a quarterback to make decisions to run than it is to throw," says Kelly, who was offensive coordinator his first two seasons with the Ducks before replacing Mike Bellotti last spring. "When you've got to read defenses and know where everybody's running, that at times can be difficult. I think as he's settled down and becomes more familiar with that, we're going to be in pretty good shape in the passing game."
Masoli's junior college numbers support that theory. In San Francisco, the then-freshman completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns while also running for 448 yards and 11 TDs.
"We recruited him because of how well he threw the ball, I don't know if people realize that," adds Kelly. "The fact that he ran the ball as well as he did (last year) was really icing on the cake for us."
The fact that Masoli was able to step in and stabilize an injury-riddled quarterback rotation was also a pleasant surprise.
He was pressed into action after the Ducks lost projected starter Nate Costa to a season-ending knee injury 10 days before the 2008 opener. Masoli eventually overtook backup Justin Roper, who suffered a Week 3 injury at Purdue, and true freshmen Chris Harper and Darron Thomas. Roper and Harper transferred out of the program in the offseason.
Masoli capped his remarkable run to prominence by earning MVP honors in the Holiday Bowl after leading the Ducks to a 42-31 win over Oklahoma State with 258 yards and one TD through the air and 106 yards and three scores on the ground.
That instant success, he says, has only served to make him hungry for more.
"I just think it makes you work harder," says Masoli. "You see the tip of the iceberg and you want it all. The bar's up there, we set it last year from the Holiday Bowl. Now we want nothing less than to go undefeated. That's our main goal and now we've just got to work hard for it."
The fact that he did have to work so hard to move up the quarterback ladder was a real key to his breakout campaign last year, according to Masoli.
"I feel like competition makes everybody a better player, especially for myself," he says. "I'm such a competitive person, I want to be the best at everything so it definitely helped me."
He also credits Kelly for helping mold him into the player he is today.
"Last year I learned how to become a complete quarterback with coach Kelly helping me out," says Masoli. "He really helped me to manage the game as a quarterback, learning not to take sacks and stuff like that and just being smart about every play."
Kelly certainly isn't done with Masoli yet. The two have set forth a goal of a 70 percent completion rate on his passes this fall. Masoli also shed some body fat in the offseason in the hopes of getting a little quicker on his feet, and worked with Oregon's young receiver corps to try to get their timing down.
"I think our passing game will be fine," he says. "I think we'll be a little more balanced than last year, for sure."
And what about moving from the shadows to his role in the national spotlight this time around?
"I'm not really too worried about it," says Masoli. "One camera, 30 cameras, it's not that big of a deal. For myself, it's just about going out there working to try to get better this year."
And why not? That game plan obviously worked out pretty well last fall.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com