Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jeremiah Masoli: Shouldering The Load

Jeremiah Masoli is doing what it takes to be Oregon’s leader on and off the field

He has been hard at work since a little after sunrise.

Throwing the football. Lifting weights. Attending classes. Watching game tape. Throwing the football some more. Running. Running. And more running.

It isn’t much of a summer vacation. Jeremiah Masoli’s routine is tedious, and rigorous. And sure, it gets old.

“Your body gets sore real fast,” he says, not too long before sundown.

But he smiles as he says it, and you’d never know he’d finished up with four 80-yard sprints, followed by five 60s and six 30s, plus a few extras because some teammates hadn’t run hard the entire way.

One month from yesterday, Oregon football players report for fall practice. Eight weeks from tomorrow, they open the season on Boise State’s blue turf.

Which is why Monday evening, an interview with the Ducks’ quarterback had to wait until after a long day was over, and an impromptu team meeting had finished. Several players called it — no coaches — and they delivered an emphatic message.

According to Masoli, it went something like this:

“It’s gut-check time. We’ve been working really hard. But now, it’s gut-check time.

“We’re ready to roll.”

Or they will be, if he has anything to do with it.

Plenty has been written and said about Masoli in the last few months. They’re calling him the Pac-10’s best quarterback, even listing him as a dark horse for the Heisman Trophy.

Closer to home — never mind questions about the offensive and defensive lines and uncertainty with a new head coach — fans see Masoli as the key to what could be a special season.

Seems like a lot to hang on a kid who turns 21 next month. Who’s been on campus for a year. Who’s been considered a rising star since late November.

But anyone who watched Masoli play against Arizona, or Oregon State, or Oklahoma State, understands. He’s short and wide, and he doesn’t look the part, maybe. But he’s a nearly perfect fit for Oregon’s spread option attack, the quarterback Chip Kelly would create in a laboratory, if he could.

Also, there’s an old football axiom that a quarterback’s biggest improvement comes between his first and second years as a starter. Considering Masoli’s rapid improvement near the end of last season, you’d think he’s due to make another big leap. Or at least, Oregon fans hope so.

And so the expectations are here, and the hype, too.

Sure, things have changed. And along with it, the quarterback knows, comes more pressure.

“I’ve got a lot of responsibility on my shoulders,” he says.

But if you want to know what else has changed for Masoli, see him run his teammates through seven-on-seven passing drills four days a week, late on beautiful summer afternoons. Hear him encourage guys. Or admonish them.

Somebody runs a route wrong, again. Or drops another pass.

“C’mon,” he’ll say. “You’re better than that.”

Masoli was here this time last year, too, running and lifting weights and throwing passes. But freshly arrived from junior college, he was simply trying to get his bearings.

“I was just running around out there,” he says. “No head on my shoulders, just throwing the ball to whoever was open.

“I was just trying to follow the leader.”

Now, he is the leader. Monday’s team meeting, and the emphatic exhortation to finish strong in summer workouts? Masoli was one of the main messengers.

Summer workouts are, uh, voluntary. But when someone misses a workout, Masoli calls, or goes to find them to “just make sure they’re not just taking a day off — because we can’t afford that.”

He calls his leadership style “proactive.” And you ought to be more encouraged by hearing about it than by recalling any of the highlights he produced late last season.

Because Masoli’s skill set is perfect for the Ducks’ spread option, but quarterback is more than talent. We’ve all seen kids with rocket arms or quick feet, guys who can diagram plays and dissect defenses.

All of that’s necessary, and important for winning football games.

But the quarterback had better have more. Work ethic and determination. Hard-to-define stuff like moxie, grit and fire. Charisma, and a desire to lead.

All of which, it seems, Masoli is showing this summer.

Is he an emerging star, and the right guy to take Oregon to a special season?

We won’t begin to know until September, even though the expectations are already here, and the hype.

But good news: So are the intangibles.

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