Thursday, July 29, 2010

Costa Versus Thomas

The Ducks are not a democracy. Chip Kelly's not taking any opinion polls, and no one, except maybe Mark Helfrich, Steve Greatwood and Scott Frost, will have much input on the decision. And good luck getting the Coach to elaborate on the decision-making process. He's not much for elaboration. God love him, I don't think he's ever met a follow up question he couldn't stifle with a quick-witted quip. Maybe your parents didn't believe in you, John. I think Canzano is still stuttering over that one.

Every time he gets interviewed he gets asked, and his answer is always the same: "We don't have to name a starter until September 4th." But I'll bet my favorite Duck hat I can name the starter right now, today.

It's Nate Costa, and it isn't even close.

Way back in March, before the start of Spring practice, Coach Kelly told John Hunt of the Oregonian, "We have enough playmakers at the other spots that the quarterback in this offense does not have to be the focal point. He’s got to be more like a point guard in basketball and distribute the ball to the right guy at the right time."

Nate Costa is that guy. Steady. Mature. Poised. Cerebral. Calm. A distributor, a guy who makes solid decisions and leads with conviction. To paraphrase an old saying, if it walks like a Duck quarterback and talks like a Duck starter and acts like a Duck starter, he's the right guy to be the starter.

Replay Costa's interview with Ted Miller or the sideline reporter at the Spring Game. Observe the calm, measured, intelligent answers. Contrast this with Darron Thomas' behavior over the last three years, riding shotgun in a high speed car race, in the car when Jeremiah Masoli made his fateful midnight munchies run, spouting off on his Facebook page in support of Jamere Holland. Thomas isn't ready. The same impulsiveness that leads him to throw 4-5 balls into coverage is displayed in his off-field behavior. Visitors to summer workouts say Costa is visibly in charge running the seven-on-seven, while Darron horses around practicing roundhouse karate kicks with a group of goofoffs.

The Darron Thomas mystique is largely based on a superficial resemblance (with his helmet on) to Dennis Dixon. While the fourth quarter against Boise in his freshman season gave us all a tantalizing view of his potential, it wasn't a true measure of his ability to be starting quarterback on a national championship contender, to take the first snaps on the road before a 100,000 hostile fans in Knoxville. Down 22 in the fourth quarter, he didn't have to worry about reads, coverages or distributing the football. His only job was to take the snap and sling it. It was playground football, all aerial, count to three Mississippis and throw deep. Granted, it was impressive to see the kid flourish coming cold off the bench. Then he did it again with the wide receiver reverse to Maehl in the Civil War. The kid has a rubber band arm and nimble feet, and he has the swagger the good ones have.

The Thomas supporters all say he's faster and more athletic than the other guy, but the numbers don't bear that out. In Spring testing Darron ran a 5.03 forty, electronically timed. Costa ran 5.01. As a freshman Costa was five-for-five for 73 yards. A lot of young quarterbacks look like world beaters in their garbage time debut, although Cody Kempt didn't.

I've watched the Spring Game five times and the UCLA game three, and I see plenty to like about Costa. His detractors say he was too stiff at UCLA, but a road win over a tough defense, with one week to prepare and no one but a couple of redshirts on the bench, that was doing EXACTLY what the situation called for. He managed the game. His only interception came on a unbelievable, athletic play by a unblocked linebacker. It's a mistake he wouldn't make again. Watch the video from Spring practices and you can see how much his mobility and confidence have grown on the rebuilt knee.

The knee. That's another issue. The Thomas camp points to the knee and says, it won't possibly hold up. Injuries are a part of football, and play a critical and unpredictable role every year. It's a collision sport. You can't make decisions based on what might happen or who might get hurt. Chip Kelly has to start the guy, at every position, that gives the team the best chance to win NOW, not next year or next week or the season after. Particularly this season, when they are the defending conference champions, with 19 returning starters and a legitimate chance to be a top Ten team.

Things will have to break right for the Ducks to repeat as conference champions. They'll have win at least three of five in the critical stretch drive of the season, when they play USC, Washington, Cal, Arizona and Oregon State, with three of those, the Trojans, Bears, and Beavers, being road games for Oregon. They'll have to avoid a rash of injuries like 2007, particularly at quarterback and the defensive line.

What the country doesn't know yet is, this Oregon team is going to be scary good. The defense is going to play fast, hit and force turnovers. The offensive line and running game will be devastating, and the secondary is loaded with speed and talent. A couple of the transfer and freshmen newcomers will step up and make major contributions. Maehl, Davis and Tuinei will be far more effective than anyone anticipates. With his crisp compact delivery and field vision Costa will excel at the crossing routes and underneath stuff. Barner will develop into a weapon that comes at a defense from all angles.

In four games last year Masoli was amazing and a game-changer, but in another four he was absolutely horrid. Costa will be steady. He'll manage the zone read and the passing game, and the Ducks are a year better everywhere else. They'll be 7-0 when they unload the bus at the Coliseum. And by then everyone will know Chip Kelly made the right choice all along.

Nate Costa.

Darron Thomas had better buckle down, because Brian Bennett and Jerrard Randall are working on their passing game, not their roundhouse kicks.

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