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Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Spring football Q&A: Oregon coach Chip Kelly

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

There are a lot of reasons to like Oregon's chances next season.

The Ducks are coming off a 10-3, top-10 finish, which includes a massacre of Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl.

They've got more certainty at quarterback with Jeremiah Masoli than just about any other team in the Pac-10. They've also got a 1,000-yard rusher returning in LeGarrette Blount, a marquee tight end in Ed Dickson and two of the best defensive backs in the conference in corner Walter Thurmond and safety T.J. Ward.

 
  Geoff Thurner/Oregon Media Services
  Chip Kelly takes over an Oregon team that finished 10-3 last season.

On the other hand, both lines need to be rebuilt. Not to get too technical about football, but lines are important in this game.

Chip Kelly will finish up his first spring as Oregon's head coach with the spring game on Saturday, so it seemed like a good time to check in.

So any thoughts on firing your quarterbacks coach [former head coach and incoming athletic director Mike Bellotti] this spring?

Chip Kelly: No, I actually gave him an incentive package to stay, but I don't think that's going to work out.

Any surprises in the process of going from offensive coordinator to head coach?

CK: No. It was exactly what I thought it would be. A lot more time needed for things outside of football. Trying to manage your day and your schedule and whatnot -- you don't get to just go off to practice or lock yourself away in a film room and watch tape all day. There are other things you have to attend to. But I knew that going in. It's just trying to get a set schedule and stick to it. You've got to learn to say no to some things. But it's what I expected.

Can you give me a couple of examples of changes you've made on how things might have been done in the past?

CK: I think we're practicing -- trying to get as much as we can out of practice. Our attention to detail and focus on the individual practices. I think that's a hard thing, no matter where you are during the spring. Obviously, your first couple of practices in the spring, you're flying around. On your scrimmage days, you're flying around. We've tried to increase the intensity in every practice and tried not to waste a day. I think that's kind of our philosophy. Our goal as a team is to win the day, and I think our kids have really adopted that, knowing that no matter if it's practice nine or practice 14, we've got to maximize it because we only get X amount of chances during the spring to be together as a group. So it's about not just going through the motions but to actually invest yourself. And our players have done that. It's really just changing the mindset a little bit. They've really done that and it's really a credit to our kids and the coaches here. Same thing as a coach. You can think, 'Ah, it's only spring ball.' But we need to get better every day and our players have bought into that.

We've joked about how Mike Bellotti is a West Coast guy and you're an East Coast guy. Have there been moments when some of the players saw some of that edgy East Coast come out and it was a little shock to their systems?

CK: I don't know if it's a shock to their system because I've been here for two years. But I think maybe because I will talk to defensive players now and special teams players -- things that weren't in my realm as offensive coordinator. During special teams [the previous two years], I'd take the quarterbacks off to the side and it was an individual period. Now, I'm trying to help Tom Osborne, our special teams coordinator, get the best looks we can possibly get. That's a little different. But because I've been here I think our players understand my personality.

Let's talk about the team: Who's stepped up this spring, starting with offense?

CK: [Tight end] Ed Dickson has probably been our best overall performer and most consistent performer. Ed's really bought into what we are talking about and gotten better every day at practice. He's improved his blocking at the line of scrimmage. He's really catching the heck out of the ball and running great routes. We're moving him around and using him in multiple positions. I've really been impressed with Ed. Out wide, Jamere Holland and Aaron Pflugrad have played very well for us along with Rory Cavaille. They've been the three most consistent. We're looking for Jamere to have a big season. He's as talented a kid as there is in the Pac-10. He's just a flat-out speed kid but he's got some toughness to him. He catches the ball and gets in and out of cuts. He's been encouraging. Those are the ones who stand out right now.

Defense?

CK: Walter Thurmond, our corner, who I would say is one of the top corners in the country, has been a tremendous leader for us and really set a pretty high standard with our defensive work ethic every day in practice. [Safety] T.J. Ward also in the secondary has done that. At linebacker, Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger have been outstanding. We really feel like our depth at linebacker, with the addition of Eddie Pleasant and Josh Kaddu as outside backers, and guys like Dewitt Stuckey and Bryson Littlejohn, we feel like we've got six or so linebackers who can really run and cause some problems out there. The whole linebacker group as a whole has probably been the best part of our team.

Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli seemed to make a huge leap over the last third of the 2008 season: What has he been focusing on this spring?

CK: Jeremiah just needs to be consistent. He needs to learn that he doesn't have to make it happen. He has to let it happen. Sometimes he thinks if things aren't going well offensively, he has to make the big play and he'll try to force the ball into coverage sometimes. But if he just lets his natural instincts take over -- which is what he did in the last four or five games last year -- not force the issue and take what the defense gives us and understand really how to manage this offense, I think he's as good a quarterback as there is in the conference. There have been days when he's done that and you're like, 'Wow, that's Jeremiah.' The days he hasn't been great is because he tries to force the issue.

What's the latest on former No. 1 quarterback Nate Costa, who has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries?

CK: He's practiced with us every day. We're just keeping him out of contact drills. He does
individual quarterback drills and seven-on-seven. He doesn't participate in 11-on-11. It's really the same status he had last spring. We hope we'll get him cleared and ready to go and he'll be in the mix when we come back in the fall.

The offensive line lost some key guys; what's their progress been like?

CK: We're young. We've got a lot of young guys getting a lot of valuable reps that I think will pay off in the long run. But they are young. They are battling up front, but our d-line is really playing well, with Will Tukuafu, Simi Toeaina and Blake Ferras and Brandon Bair -- the two best defensive linemen are Will Tukuafu and Brandon Bair -- and they've done a great job on our d-line, so our d-line is a little bit ahead of our offensive line at this point. But it's been really good work and the competition between those two groups has been outstanding. But because we're younger on the offensive line, I'd say the d-line has had the upper hand.

I didn't see that coming. I've been reading about how well the defense has been playing. You guys lost three starters up front. Has the unit exceeded your expectations a little bit?

CK: No. I've got very high expectations for our defense. I think they lost three starters, but Brandon Bair played football for us, Simi is a force and he's really had a great offseason. I always knew Simi could be a great player because he's got so much athletic ability and can really cause some problems. Blake Ferras played last year and he's a big strong kid. Will has gotten better. The difference is on the o-line, we have two guys out that started last season for us. I think that's the difference.

Is running back LeGarrette Blount out of the doghouse and how's he been doing?

CK: LeGarrette has been cleared to go since the spring term started. He's doing a nice job and is practicing well. He came into spring ball a little bit out of shape because he wasn't with us in the winter because of his suspension. I'd say he's a little bit behind in the conditioning aspect, but when he runs behind his pads, people are bouncing off him. He's got great vision and great balance for a big guy. I expect a big season out of him.

Tell me about the JC transfers who've been stepping in on defense -- it's often hit or miss with JC transfers and it sounds like you guys have hit?

CK: They've got a shot. Linebacker Bryson Littlejohn has consistently shown up in every practice. He can really run. He adds depth to our linebacker corps and he'll be a great special teams player for us. He's been impressive. [Defensive tackle] Terrance Montgomery will help I think inside. It's still a matter of him getting acclimated to this level. Those are the two guys who stand out right now.

What's the latest on your hunt for an offensive assistant coach?

CK: I'm going to hire a quarterbacks coach probably by Thursday. We don't want to lose any time on the road recruiting. We'll be recruiting a quarterback in the fall, so I want to make sure we've got a guy on the road because I can't go see guys in the spring because of NCAA rules. So we'll be at our full complement of coaches. We're brought six people to campus ... I'll have this thing finalized by Thursday.

You want to tell me who it's going to be?

CK: No. Not at all.