Ducks see Masoli as rising star

Jeremiah Masoli stands over center Jordan Holmes in Oregon's unorthodox black-green winged uniforms. Black makeup is smeared in an upside-down L under his eyes. His lips are pursed. And he's pointing.

From the cover of "Sports Illustrated."

"Who am I pointing at?" Masoli said. "I'm pointing at everybody in the nation!"
The genuine joy in his voice is infectious, because he, as much as anybody, knows his story is unusual.

He came from nowhere -- his May 2008 signing with Oregon was mostly treated as an oddity -- and rose from fifth string to the Holiday Bowl MVP for a top-10 team.

Now there's the SI cover and even some talk that if he and the Ducks take off in 2009, Masoli might merit Heisman Trophy consideration.

"It's definitely been a crazy ride the past 12 to 15 months," he said.

Don't immediately write off the Heisman talk, either. Over the final three games of the 2008 season, he completed 50 of 75 (67 percent) passes for 830 yards and six touchdowns with one interception. Masoli also rushed 38 times for 248 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and seven scores.

Now project those numbers onto a 12-game regular season: 3,320 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and four interceptions, plus 992 yards rushing and 28 touchdowns.

How 'bout them apples?

While a quarterback's development is typically a long and winding process, it's not hard to pinpoint the moment when the light went on for Masoli; when he saw and understood how to obtain the riches a quarterback can accumulate in Chip Kelly's spread-option offense.

Masoli was having a bad day in the rain against Stanford -- the season's 10th game -- and more than a few Ducks fans were letting him have it. Then the Ducks took over on their 12-yard line with 2:18 remaining, trailing 28-27.
Masoli led a methodical 11-play drive for the winning touchdown. He completed 3 of 6 passes for 39 yards and rushed 25 yards on third-and-8 to the Stanford 8-yard line.

The drive was transformative. The next weekend, he went 21-for-26 for 298 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and rushed for 89 yards in a 55-45 victory over Arizona, which had one of the best defenses in the Pac-10.

Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops noted there was nothing on film to suggest Masoli would pass that well.
"We didn't see that coming," he said.

And now Masoli has had a spring, offseason and preseason to refine his knowledge of Kelly's offense.

"I feel 100 times better, 100 times more comfortable," Masoli said. "The game is way slower. I know the playbook way better. Having the experience I have will help my confidence, but especially the team's confidence in me. They've seen what I can do."

What the stocky, 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior can do includes -- as often noted since his tour de force performance in the 42-31 victory over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl -- is run over defensive backs.

That component of his game, however, might be put on the back burner this fall. While Masoli the runner provided a lot of highlights, he sees himself as a pass-first quarterback. After all, in his single junior college season, he led City College of San Francisco to a national championship while throwing for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns.

The Ducks also appear stacked at receiver, with a handful of guys who are either big or fast -- or both. Kelly believes Masoli will be able to stress defenses with a more vertical passing game this fall.

"I really like our depth at receiver," Kelly said. "We may be better there than we've been in the past. If you want to take away our running game, which I know is good, then we've got some kids out wide and a quarterback who can make you pay for trying to do that."

When asked if he has become the Ducks' leader, Masoli demurs and proceeds to list every senior on the depth chart as a leader. Nonetheless, it's clear that a more vocal Masoli has taken the offensive reins.

"He's our leader," tight end Ed Dickson said. "He's consistent with everybody every day. He's what the Ducks need right now."

Masoli will get a chance to make a national statement in the Sept. 3 season opener at Boise State.

The Broncos knocked Masoli out of last year's game with a first-quarter cheap shot, and the Ducks ended up losing 37-32.

While there's been plenty of grumbling around the Oregon camp about the way things went down, Masoli apparently got the memo to keep pregame talk to a minimum.
"Every game is a grudge match for us," he said. "Especially Boise."

If Masoli and the Ducks get their revenge with the aplomb they displayed in the Holiday Bowl, a national audience might start pointing right back at the Oregon quarterback.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the Pac-10 for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.