Wednesday, September 26, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Cal is facing a real pro: Oregon's QB

Here is the link.

A two-sport star: Dixon's summer job was baseball

By Jeff Faraudo

Dennis Dixon called it a career decision. Coming off a rocky finish to his 2006 season as Oregon's quarterback, he took an unusual turn on the road to his senior year. He decided to play baseball last summer.  Drafted in the fifth round by the Atlanta Braves, the San Leandro High graduate raised some eyebrows and drew the momentary disapproval of Ducks Coach Mike Bellotti when he signed and reported to Kissimmee, Fla., in July for a month of rookie ball.  "I said publicly, I wish he were reading defenses rather than reading curveballs," Bellotti said. "Certainly the timing wasn't good. But I think he took it as a challenge, and I knew he was committed to football."  Dixon, who hadn't played baseball since high school, said, "You come to college to find a job. Basically, I felt like the baseball opportunity was a job. I could see myself pursuing that in the future. As of right now, football is on my mind." All evidence suggests the detour to the diamond didn't hurt Dixon. The Ducks are ranked 11th headed into their Pacific-10 Conference showdown Saturday against No. 6 Cal.  No player in the Pac-10 is performing better than Dixon, who is fourth nationally in pass efficiency, has thrown 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions, and is averaging 233 yards passing and 72.8 yards rushing per game in Oregon's no-huddle spread attack.

A big rematch

He has been named Pac-10 offensive player of the week  twice in the past four weeks.  Of course, this is the same crossroads Dixon and the Ducks faced a year ago, when they squared off with Cal in Berkeley in a game matching 4-0 teams. Dixon's first pass was picked off and he threw another interception during a 45-24 rout that sent the Ducks spiraling to a 3-6 record in their final nine games. Dixon personified the Ducks' troubles, throwing 12 interceptions over the final nine games, and ultimately lost his starting job.

"We lost our focus a little bit," Dixon said of the late-season skid. "The trust factor on both sides of the ball was affected." So was the monthlong baseball diversion potentially a risky move? "I always thought baseball was the best thing for him," said Chip Kelly, Oregon's new offensive coordinator. "He was put in different competitive situations than he sees in a football game, but there's a lot of carry-over. He saw things from a different light and I think he matured."

But even while in Florida, then in Danville, Va., for a week with a higher-level Braves rookie team, Dixon never let football stray far from his thoughts. He packed a football, playbook and game tapes along with his outfielder's glove and cleats, and says he spent at least four hours each day working on football. "I played catch (with a football) with my teammates," he said. "I put them in the outfield and threw slants and fades."

May have pro options

Dixon hit just .178 in 28 games but earned the admiration of his employers. "We are encouraged by his baseball ability and his athletic ability and by how terrific a young man he is," said Kurt Kemp, director of player personnel for the Braves. "Our impressions were absolutely fantastic. "This is not a guy who has never played baseball. He just hadn't played it in four years." Kemp said the Braves look forward to Dixon returning for spring training but understand the NFL might provide him with options. "It would be shortsighted of us to do anything but hope he is successful," Kemp said. Right now, the focus of Dixon and the Ducks is on Cal. "Everything is a work in progress," Bellotti said. "We started off real well last year." Dixon is the least of Bellotti's concerns. He said the quarterback was so good in fall camp that he was voted captain by his teammates. His decision-making has been great and he has improved his ability to throw the long pass.

After Dixon passed for 292 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 76 yards and another score in the Ducks' 39-7 thrashing of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Bellotti said, "We've seen nothing but that kind of performance since fall camp." Even the Wolverines and 100,000 fans in the Big House didn't present the scenario Dixon and his teammates encountered Saturday at Stanford. The Ducks roared to a 21-3 lead, then allowed the Cardinal to score 28 unanswered points. Three Oregon fumbles - the first of them by Dixon - fueled the Stanford rally. "I talked to him during the game about staying the course and being a leader," Kelly said. "He's a year older and a year wiser, and I think that showed. It was the first real test he's faced, and he responded." Dixon threw for three second-half touchdowns and the Ducks avoided a costly stumble with a 55-31 victory. "He came through tremendously," receiver Cameron Colvin told the Eugene Register-Guard. "He calmed himself, he calmed our offense down and said, 'Let's go, we've got to do this.' " Now the Ducks have to do it against Cal, which hasn't won in Eugene since 1987 but helped unravel Oregon's dreams a year ago. "I know he'll be thinking about us all week. We got after him a little bit last year," said defensive back Brandon Hampton, who intercepted Dixon's first pass against Cal a year ago. "He has a little more confidence now. You can tell just by some of the choices he's making on film. He's at his best right now."

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