Leslie Montgomery

The countdown has begun. 

Players and coaches still won’t dare mention it, but it looms like a rain cloud. Local radio shows discuss Boise State every day. The blogosphere is afire with talk of the biggest college football opening day in recent memory: a Thursday night on the blue turf where a non-BCS conference team will attempt to falter a Pacific-10 Conference team and earn another BCS bowl bid.

The stage is set and with less than two weeks until the first kickoff of the 2009 football season, things are coming to a head. But try as one might, you won’t get the No. 16 Ducks to bite when you ask them about their mega-season opener against the No. 14 Broncos.

“We haven’t even been thinking about the game; we’re just starting to sharpen our game and getting back into shape and getting back into it,” linebacker Eddie Pleasant said. “We won’t be thinking about it until the time comes when we do play Boise … They’re just not on our minds. They’re not out here with us. We have to focus on what we need to do and we’ll be ready. We have great coaches and they know what to do and we’re just on the boat ready to go.”

That’s the company line that everyone has been repeating since the beginning of the summer, but the game is already a looming reality. Soon the team will have to look itself in the mirror and determine whether it is ready for the big stage of a BCS bowl.

There are some major concerns with this year’s team after the losses of an experienced wide receivers unit, three NFL draftees on the offensive line and another on the defensive line. And while the entire spotlight is on Oregon’s offensive machine, with the new “tazer” — versatile athletes who can rotate between positions — and head coach Chip Kelly using new props during practice, the defense has steadily been developing into a force behind the scenes.

Just ask linebacker Spencer Paysinger, leader of Oregon’s deepest unit.

“I actually think we’re going to have the best defense we’ve had in the past few years, if not better,” Paysinger said. “We have an experienced secondary. People think that our D-line is a big question, though it’s really not. Anyone watching can pretty much tell that they are the strong point in our defense, and our linebackers are big, fast and strong.”

Linebackers coach Don Pellum is a little more guarded on his thoughts on the defense, saying he has to see the players in action before he will judge how good they are. But he says he still really likes the way his unit has progressed this fall.

“I think every year, every unit is different, and you really don’t know where you are until you get out there and get some game experience,” Pellum said. “I think we have a lot of speed, and we’re a little bit smarter than last year. I think this defense has a chance to be better.”

Between Paysinger, Pleasant and Casey Matthews, the linebacking corps has a solid front of experienced veterans to lean on, and its back-ups are just as good.

“They’ve been great in camp,” Kelly said. “That’s the one position where we have quality, competitive depth at right now. You have Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews inside, then Eddie Pleasant outside, and then you have some quality kids that I wouldn’t even call backups in Bryson Littlejohn and Josh Kaddu and Dewitt Stuckey. Some guys just keep getting better. We feel like we’re six, seven, eight deep at that position right now.”

Outside of the linebackers, the rest of the team also senses progress. Sure, there are kinks to be worked out as Paysinger says, but the overall attitude is that the Ducks are going to be better than last year, thanks to exciting players like running back/tazer LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

“We need to find a way to get guys like Kenjon, LaMichael, Dion (Jordan) and Ed (Dickson) in the game at the same time,” Kelly said. “If you’ve watched camp, LaMichael and Kenjon have been very productive.”

Running back Remene Alston laughs when asked about the tazer position, saying that only at Oregon would there be an entirely different position to fit all the athletes on the field.

“They’re going to be good,” Alston said. “I think those two together might be better than Jonathan (Stewart) and Jeremiah (Johnson). Anytime you have to make up a position to get someone on the field, I think that says a lot about the talent level on our offense. That speaks to our versatility and our team.”

So for now the team will continue to work through its remaining practices, in temperatures continually in the high-80s and low-90s. But even on the rare moments when the Ducks are off the field or not in the Casanova Center, they’re still together and that’s what sets them apart, Alston says.

“I think we have the best team chemistry in the nation, by far,” he said. “And I say that for on and off the field. Our team is real close. In the running backs, you can catch us anytime off the field and we’re always together.”

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