Ducks' biggest challenge: keeping Lyles situation under control

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Oregon is coming off an undefeated regular season, a conference championship and its first BCS title-game berth.

The school might even unveil another one of those fashion-altering Nike uniforms soon.

But all anybody wanted to talk about Tuesday at Pac-12 football media day was Willie Lyles and the lingering rain clouds over Eugene.

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Everybody, that is, except Ducks coach Chip Kelly.

"Oregon has released a statement," media day emcee Dave Hirsch said, interrupting another in a staccato series of Lyles-related questions intended for Kelly. "We're doing this [media day] for the 2011 Pac-12 football season."

Oh, that.

Yes, Oregon still plays football, and if the conference's preseason media poll is any indication, the Ducks still play it pretty well.

Oregon was picked to win the conference's first title game on 28 of 42 ballots. Stanford was the closest rival with 11 votes while Arizona State had three.

"I'd like to commend the media that covers this conference because I think you're the smartest ones out there," Kelly deadpanned. "You picked us to win the league. We hope you're right."

There are plenty of reasons to believe we are.

The Ducks return running back and Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James, who ran for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.

They have James' understudy, Kenjon Barner, who rushed for 551 yards and six TDs and averaged more yards per carry than James (6.1 to 5.9).

There is experience in the linebacking corps, the secondary, and junior quarterback Darron Thomas returns after throwing for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns in his first season as the starter.

But the biggest reason to believe in the Ducks, other than USC's continued postseason ineligibility, is Kelly's ability to rally his troops.

Chip Kelly is happy to discuss the reasons why UO could win the Pac-12, yet is tight-lipped about a factor that could ruin it. (AP)  
Chip Kelly is happy to discuss the reasons why UO could win the Pac-12, yet is tight-lipped about a factor that could ruin it. (AP)  
Oregon's break-neck practice pace is legendary. So is Kelly's game preparation. But the besieged coach's ability to put a pin in this enormous and ongoing distraction has put his players at ease, allowing them to focus on the mundane matters of the offseason.

It was evident in recent comments from James about Lyles to the Oregonian. And it was evident at Tuesday's media event.

"I don't think it's really affected us," tight end David Paulsen said, as if surprised he was being asked about Lyles. "We're really just focused on getting better this summer -- working hard in the weight room, doing some 7-on-7, trying to come together as a team and getting ready for this upcoming season."

When pressed, Paulsen said the distraction could possibly have the opposite effect.

"It might help a little bit just to bring us together," he said. "But overall, our team is pretty motivated anyway, so I don't think it's had that big of an effect on us."

There are concerns about the Ducks' ability to three-peat in the conference that are game related.

Oregon lost three offensive linemen who started at least 12 games in center Jordan Holmes and guards C.E. Kaiser and Bo Thran.

"We're confident in who we have," Kelly said. "I like their mindset but the one thing you can't manufacture is experience."

The Ducks also lost their top two receivers in Jeff Maehl (77 receptions, 1,076 yards, 12 TDs) and Drew Davis (42 rec., 470 yds, 3 TDs) and three key defensive linemen in end Kenny Rowe (48 tackles, 7 sacks) and tackles Zac Clark (41, 4) and Brandon Bair (47 tackles, 16 for loss).

But the Ducks have talent in the wings -- the mark of any program that has reached this level. Oregon rotated nine defensive linemen last season, so there shouldn't be a huge drop-off.

Lavasier Tuinei is a solid receiver and sophomore Josh Huff looks like a game-breaker.

If the offensive line can come together, Thomas' maturity and James' big-play penchant should make the offense lethal once again.

The potential pitfall in all of this is what the NCAA decides once it has had time to review the Lyles situation. Until then, the guy who was toiling as the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire in 2006 seems determined to keep this storyline from derailing his, and his team's remarkable drive to the top.

"It's nice to be picked to win, it's nice to be picked top five in the country, but it doesn't mean anything until you go out and play the game, so that mindset won't change," Kelly said. "The vision that we have for this football program exceeds any expectations that anybody could write down on a piece of paper."

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