August 27, 2010
Oregon wasn't supposed to solve its ongoing quarterback derby between senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas until their "final exam," a preseason scrimmage Saturday to close out preseason camp before beginning game-week prep for next week's opener with New Mexico. After Thomas reportedly outplayed Costa on Thursday, though, coach Chip Kelly had obviously seen enough. Thomas will be the Ducks' No. 1 quarterback on Sept. 4, per the school's official Twitter feed and an official release.
His reward is a seat at the head of one of the most quarterback-friendly attacks in the country. Kelly was the offensive coordinator in 2007. His up-tempo, 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 a death machine that averaged just shy of 43 points per game. The Ducks convincingly trounced Michigan, USC and 8-0 Arizona State en route to a No. 2 ranking before Dixon blew out his knee in mid-November. They closed the year with a four-touchdown effort from obscure freshman Justin Roper in a Sun Bowl rout over South Florida. A year later, once unlikely JUCO transfer Jeremiah Masoli finally seized the job halfway through the '08 campaign, the Ducks again averaged 43 points on nearly 500 yards over the last seven games, pushing the throttle all the way to a rare top-10 finish.
Last year, the offense overcame a disastrous start in Kelly's first game as head coach to lead the conference in rushing and scoring for the third straight season, ringing up at least 37 points in eight of nine Pac-10 games. To put it mildly, the system works.
In Thomas, the Ducks are shunning the sentimental favorite (Costa missed chances to take the reins in 2007 and 2008 to separate ACL injuries) for a Dixon-like athlete who figures to keep the focus on the "option" half of the spread option. He's backed up by the Pac-10's leading returning rusher (LaMichael James), last year's top three wide receivers and a completely intact offensive line. If Thomas is anywhere near the Dixon-Masoli range, the Ducks should be in the thick of the Pac-10 and BCS championship races. If he's not, Costa may finally get his shot.
Where Chip Kelly has moved to squelch the nagging questions about his signal-caller, Steve Spurrier has decided to toss a couple gallons of gasoline on the speculation in South Carolina. True to his word, he released a depth chart Friday that lists the Gamecocks' starting quarterback as "Stephen Garcia or Connor Shaw." It raises the very real specter of a fourth-year junior with 16 career starts under his belt – including all 13 games last year – actually being benched for a true freshman who showed up on campus in January.
If we were talking about any other coach, maybe we could write it off as a cheap motivational ploy a week ahead of a very winnable season opener. With Spurrier, if he says they're both gonna play against Southern Miss, it's a good bet they're both gonna play. On the other hand, historically, that's a good bet whether he announces it or not. At any rate, welcome to the fray, Mssr. Shaw.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.