Sitting Ducks: Masoli benched for 2010 season, James out for opener

In the span of a few hours today, both of Oregon’s best players resigned themselves to their fate as convicts. In the morning, running back LaMichael James — the Pac-10’s Freshman of the Year in 2009 and leading returning rusher this fall — was sentenced to 10 days in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor physical harassment in an altercation with his ex-girlfriend last month. In the same courtroom a few hours later, All-Pac-10 quarterback and likely Heisman candidate Jeremiah Masoli was sentenced to one year’s probation and 140 hours community service in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree burglary at a frat house in late January. Masoli and former Duck receiver Garrett Embry, a little-used reserve who was booted from the team before either of the pair was charged in the burglary, will both owe $5,000 in restitution within 10 days.

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James’ 10-day sentence was immediately suspended due to overcrowding, so he and Masoli both eluded jail time thanks to their guilty pleas. But only James will even have a chance to elude defenders on the field this fall, after obviously perturbed coach Chip Kelly responded by suspending his star quarterback for the entire 2010 season, and his star running back for at least part of it:

UO coach Chip Kelly just announced that senior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli has been suspended for the entire 2010 season in wake of Masoli’s guilty plea today on a second-degree burglary charge.

Running back LaMichael James has been suspended for one game, at a minimum, Kelly said in a brief press conference at the Casanova Center.

James plead guilty to one count of misdemeanor physical harassment earlier today. He will miss the Ducks’ 2010 opener against New Mexico on Sept. 4, and Kelly said the running back’s return will be contingent upon his “adherence to a set of standards.”

On the other hand, Kelly, in an emotional statement, repeated several times that Masoli will not play in 2010. “He is not eligible to play in 2010,” Kelly said of the quarterback.

Two obvious factors in the disparity of Kelly’s response: a) The misdemeanor harassment charge against James wasn’t as serious as the burglary rap against Masoli, usually a felony charge that he was able to plead down to a misdemeanor; and b) According to affidavits released today, Masoli told Kelly he wasn’t at the frat house on the night of the burglary, which his guilty plea obviously revealed as a lie. Masoli also has a three-month stint in a juvenile detention facility on his record for his role in a series of robberies as a teenager, marking him as a repeat offender and a liar in the eyes of his coach. Not exactly “face of the program” material, though the endless string of legal trouble that’s defined the Ducks’ first offseason as a burgeoning national power all but guarantees they’ll be known as well as a team run amok as for anything that happens on the field.

Masoli didn’t redshirt after transferring from San Francisco Community College as a sophomore in 2008, and thus can afford to burn this season and return in 2011 as a fifth-year senior. He could also attempt to transfer in a bid to play this fall or (if forced to sit out a year under standard transfer rules) at least escape some of the baggage bound to follow him as long as he remains at Oregon.

That’s also assuming this season-long suspension — unlike the season-long suspension Kelly initially dished out to last year’s star, running back LeGarrette Blount — actually sticks. Kelly put Blount on ice for the entire ’09 season (as a senior, effectively ending Blount’s career) after he waylaid a Boise State player on national television immediately following the Ducks’ opening-night humiliation in Idaho, but lifted the suspension for the final month of the season; Blount was back in uniform in mid-November and eventually scored touchdowns as a backup against both Oregon State and Ohio State to close the season. Kelly later reasoned that he had to take the entire season away for Blount to prove that he was really committed to reform without the carrot of football dangling in front of him, and only lifted the suspension when he was satisfied the proper penance had been paid. There won’t be any way of knowing until the final gun in December whether Masoli and teammate Kiko Alonso (a reserve linebacker who Kelly previously suspended for the upcoming season after a particularly ill-timed DUI arrest) are facing actual suspensions, or the conditional variety that allowed Blount to return.

Either way, it’s another bitter pill for Kelly, an emotional guy who all but offered to take up LaMichael James’ legal defense in a heated radio exchange with Portland columnist, radio host and persistent critic John Canzano last month, at which point Masoli had been publicly implicated but not yet charged in the burglary. As the consistent second chances indicate, Kelly wants to believe in his players so badly that he told Canzano to “put me on the air again, and then you apologize” when “the final truth comes out,” echoing a more polite request he’d made for a return appearance on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that same afternoon. He went to bat for his players then, which only makes their open admissions of guilt in court all the more wounding. There won’t be any apologies forthcoming after a pair of guilty pleas and a season-long suspension of one of the most high-profile players in the country.

Kelly’s fast-break spread attack has rolled on since his arrival as offensive coordinator in 2007 regardless of the personnel — Masoli’s predecessor at quaterback, Dennis Dixon, was also a Heisman candidate, and James was the fourth different Duck running back to top 1,000 yards rushing in three years. Masoli’s replacement, redshirt sophomore-to-be Darron Thomas, is another athletic sort who played a little as a true freshman in 2008 and fits right into the usual read-option mold out of the shotgun. Under any circumstances, though, today feels like a significant step backward in Oregon’s steady ascendency: Minus Masoli, and with James facing significant time in the doghouse, the Ducks are no longer a national championship contender this fall, and can probably cede the rare title of “Pac-10 favorite,” too. As much praise as Kelly (rightfully) earned last year for steering his team out of the depths of the Boise State debacle in his first game as a head coach, he can’t spend his entire career figuring out how to clambor out of these holes.

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