The fall's most gripping quarterback battles. Part of the Doc's Pac-10 Week.
• Typecasting. If there's any offense in college football that can dismiss the unexpected absence of a likely Heisman contender at quarterback, Chip Kelly's prolific spread-option/zone-read scheme is probably it. As offensive coordinator in 2007, Kelly's versatile, run-based spread immediately punched up an inconsistent, occasionally stagnant unit and turned an erratic, on-and-off starter, Dennis Dixon, into the pilot of an all-purpose death machine that averaged just shy of 43 points per game, convincingly trouncing Michigan, USC and 8-0 Arizona State en route to a No. 2 ranking in the polls before Dixon blew out his knee in mid-November. Once unlikely JUCO transfer Jeremiah Masoli finally seized the job halfway through the '08 season, the Ducks again averaged 43 points and nearly 500 total yards over the last seven games, en route to a rare top-10 finish.
Last year, the offense endured a disastrous start in Kelly's first game as head coach and, yes, the season-long suspension of a star player before the clock struck twelve on opening night. But the Ducks still went on to lead the conference in rushing and scoring for the third straight season under Kelly's watch, hanging at least 37 points in eight of nine Pac-10 games (the exception was a 24-10 win at UCLA in which Masoli didn't play) while also producing their fourth different 1,000-yard rusher in three years.
All that is to say this: Kelly's scheme has more than fulfilled the hype despite a steady string of injuries and attrition at key positions. At the key position, the short, squat, lightly recruited Masoli couldn't be more different than the lanky, sleek Dixon, or the ponderous, pocket-bound Justin Roper, who filled in with four touchdown passes in the Sun Bowl rout over South Florida after Dixon went down in '07. But all three have succeeded to various extents. Given that track record (along with the leading returning rusher in the Pac-10, sophomore LaMichael James), there's better reason than not to think fifth-year senior Nate Costa or Dixon-esque sophomore Darron Thomas will hit the ground running behind an intact front that returns all five starters in a system that seems to turn everyone it touches to gold.
• The wily vet. As a rule, it's never a good idea to get too carried away with a career backup who's had three times as many knee surgeries (three) as starts (one) over his first four years. Costa, though, is more a victim of circumstance than just another resilient also-ran: He would have been the first option off the bench as a sophomore when Dixon tore his ACL in 2007, if Costa hadn't torn his own ACL a few weeks before, leaving a mostly inept shuffle behind Dixon that led the Ducks directly into three straight losses to close the regular season. And he would have likely emerged as the unquestioned starter in 2008, if he hadn't torn the same ACL just before the season, ceding the offense to another gaggle of candidates that soon produced Masoli.
Frankly, most guys in Costa's situation would try to cut their losses: As recently as February, it was infinitely more likely that Costa would be the one scrambling to get into grad school somewhere else in order to preserve his final year of eligibility.
Instead, he gets one more shot to justify his patience in Eugene. Costa's only start, a 9-of-17 effort for 82 yards with one touchdown, one interception and –18 yards rushing in the relatively low-scoring win at UCLA last October, was hardly a revelation for a fourth-year junior. But it did live up to his longstanding reputation as the savvy, versatile guy who throws well enough, and who isn't going to get you beat. The bigger concern at this point is whether his beleaguered knees will still let him flash the essential mobility from the shotgun that made the attack such a nightmare under Masoli and Dixon.
• The young gun. There are no such concerns with Thomas on the mobility front: As a lanky, well-regarded recruit out of Texas in 2008, his athleticism was also coveted by the likes of Florida, LSU, Miami and Nebraska. If the decision comes down to big-play potential in the zone-read, Thomas is far more likely to finish in the same 600-to-800-yard range on the ground as Masoli the last two years.
His arm and decision-making are less certain, though Thomas did come on as a true freshman to throw for 210 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter in his only extended action, a 37-32 loss to Boise State in 2008. But in that game he was facing a bend-don't-break Bronco defense clinging to a big late lead on the road (Thomas also served up a critical fourth-quarter interception), and he quickly yielded to the reins to Masoli over the rest of the season. With Costa healthy again last year, coaches decided Thomas was expendable enough (for the time being) to leave on the bench all season as a redshirt.
• The smart money. Kelly has been clear that he intends to settle on one guy and stick with him, but a week into fall practice, there's no good indication that either has a discernible edge: Costa and Thomas were both running with the first team on Monday, and fan opinion seems decidedly split down the middle. Thomas offers the higher upside, and the added bonus of avoiding another transition when he inevitably takes over the job in 2011, anyway.
But if the Ducks have their sights aimed at another Rose Bowl with a genuinely stacked offense – much less a run at the national championship – they can't afford to swallow the growing pains that are more likely to come with a third-year sophomore than a fifth-year senior. Costa hasn't played much more than Thomas, but he's certainly been around the block, and if his knees have enough left to get him around again, his maturity could be a more valuable asset than Thomas' wheels.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.