Leading the charge

Leslie Montgomery

The hit came without warning.

Jeremiah Masoli rolled to his left, all the time looking down the field to wide receiver Jaison Williams. Masoli reached back and threw across his body, and just as he released the ball (which Williams caught for an 11-yard gain), a white blur in a blue helmet stepped up and put a shoulder and helmet right under Masoli’s chin strap.

“I don’t think about it at all,” Masoli says of the hit. “I’m not really worried about last year.”

But the rest of the people who witnessed the hit by Ellis Powers that day vividly recall Masoli’s legs kicking up as he hit the ground like someone had run a clothesline across his chest. Powers, who was whistled for roughing the passer, stood over the fallen quarterback for a second as Masoli slowly got to his knees, but a couple of plays later the Oregon passer would have to leave with a mild concussion.

In that moment, a rivalry was born. But unlike last year, when both teams came in with shaky quarterback situations, this year’s season opener will showcase two very talented quarterbacks entrenched in their roles as leaders of the offense.

“The exciting thing for us is that Jeremiah is a year older,” first-year Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s had a chance to be a full year in our system and he’s an experienced football player now … Last year, no one knew his name, including me.”

Since Masoli was cleared to play his first game as a Duck against Washington, he’s made strides in every part of his game. He knew three plays and Kelly had to shuffle him and freshman quarterback Chris Harper in and out of the game. Now, he knows the playbook and runs it with a masterful touch.

“Every week he grew as a player,” Kelly said, “to the point where he became the MVP of the Holiday Bowl. It was an interesting situation for us as a staff because it was the first time we dealt with on-the-job training. We tried not to overload him. But it was fun coaching him because he’s a great kid and he understands his limitations. A lot of kids will tell you they have it when they don’t, but he doesn’t.”

Masoli’s rise was meteoric. In the 12 games he played, including the last 10 starts, he ran for 718 yards and 10 touchdowns. Through the air, he accumulated 1,744 yards and 13 touchdowns. He capped it all off by leading Oregon to a 4-0 finish, including a 65-38 win over Oregon State and a 42-31 win over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl.

“As a leader, he’s more comfortable stepping up and saying something,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich said. “He’s not a natural talker, and sometimes that’s tough as a quarterback, but he’s doing a good job of being prepared and doing that thing that makes him special that can’t be taught or coached.”

And this year there are no doubts that this is his team. Masoli earned that with his leadership in the huddle and work ethic this summer when he was out in 100-degree weather in a black, long-sleeved shirt throwing routes to receivers.

“Everyone respects his game,” cornerback and team captain Walter Thurmond III said. “We have four captains, but he’s the quarterback and everyone looks up to him. He probably needs to be a little bit more vocal, but guys really follow behind him.”

Players and coaches talk about the intangibles Masoli brings to the team, something that most categorize as him just being a playmaker.

“He brings passion. He fires people up. He brings intensity,” running back LeGarrette Blount said. “He’s been gaining more confidence every week and he feels like he can put this team on his shoulders and give us a ‘W’ for the day.”

But unlike some, who shrink from expectations bestowed upon them by a hungry fan base that’s ready for a BCS bowl, Masoli is ready to step into the spotlight and take the Ducks as far as they can go.

“This year is real different,” Masoli said. “The whole mindset last year was more learning. This year, I’m the guy everyone looks to. It’s great. I welcome the responsibility with open arms and I have the great players to make my job easier.”

There’s no mistaking it; it’s all on his shoulders.

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