Friday, October 10, 1997

Football

By Mark Dittmer

Daily Bruin Staff

Who will start at quarterback this Saturday? Oregon football
fans never know until the last minute.

There’s Jason Maas, a fourth-year junior who has been waiting in
the wings since 1994. Then there’s Akili Smith, a junior college
transfer who only joined the Ducks (3-2, 1-2 Pac-10) this
spring.

This Saturday, the Ducks will face No. 18 UCLA (3-2, 1-1) at
Autzen Stadium in Oregon. UCLA’s defense has pressured quarterbacks
into eleven interceptions, and the Bruins lead the nation in
takeaways.

So maybe Oregon Coach Bellotti will think of safety first, and
go with Smith, who has thrown just one interception this year to
Maas’ seven. Hmmm …

"We won’t decide that until Friday," Bellotti said. "Akili
graded out better last week. I was encouraged by (his) performance,
coming in and moving the team as he did."

* * *

Akili Smith is a great athlete.

"Well, he’s obviously a great athlete," Dave Jordan, Smith’s
head coach at Grossmont College, said. "He should be able to keep
playing football for a long time. We’ve had a lot of great
quarterbacks here, and he’s one of the top two or three."

In high school, Smith the three-sport athlete was named San
Diego’s athlete of the year for 1993. He began his college football
career at Grossmont in 1996. In between, Smith was an outfielder,
playing in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor-league system.

"When he came here he’d just left professional baseball," Jordan
said. "It took him about three weeks to get the starting position.
The first year he never got the offense totally but made up for it
with athleticism. The next year he took us to a bowl game."

It’s a good two-year program, one Jordan thinks Smith can repeat
at Oregon. But so far he’s not on schedule: the Ducks are five
games into their season, and Smith has yet to capture the starting
job.

"I think he’s dealing with it well," Jordan said. "I saw him on
the sidelines a couple of weeks ago; he drove the team down and
then the other kid got in and scored the touchdown. He seemed to be
right in the game with everybody."

* * *

"The other kid" has been watching Oregon games from the
sidelines for three years. He is a solid citizen who has waited his
turn, and he knows the offense.

Now a junior, Jason Maas was the third-string quarterback last
year. He threw 18 passes, all of them in garbage time. Though it’s
his experience with the offense that’s most often mentioned as his
best qualification for the job, his high school coach cites another
one: mental toughness.

"He was pretty intense," Curt Weber, the Yuma High School head
coach, said. "He got after guys in the locker room that weren’t
intense. I have a lot of respect for Jason Maas.

He’s dealt with a lot of adversity. This (quarterback
controversy) is probably a little bump in the road for him. His
former coaches are probably more irritated by it than he is. We
want to see him play."

Maas’ father, a police officer, was shot and killed while on
duty when Maas was only 10.

"He maybe turned it into something that could help him, and it
made him a lot tougher," Weber said.

* * *

They have each played in every one of Oregon’s five games. Smith
started the first three, all Oregon wins. But it was Maas who led
Oregon to its second win, a 24-20 come-from-behind win against
Nevada.

And it was Maas who led the offense to 49 points, albeit in a
58-49 loss, in his first start of the year two weeks ago against
Stanford.

Maas has thrown for 816 yards and nine touchdowns in five games;
Smith has thrown for 435 yards and five touchdowns. Maas is
63-for-109, Smith 37-for-71. Three starts for Smith, two for
Maas.

"Akili is obviously the best athlete I’ve ever coached at the
quarterback position," Bellotti said. "He can turn a 10-yard sack
into a 25-yard gain. Jason is ahead in the overall offense. That
has to do with being here for four years instead of being here for
10 months." Hmmm …

Bellotti has come to like the current situation, in which he
uses both quarterbacks and only names a starter on a week-to-week
basis.

"We’re utilizing them much as we would any other position,"
Bellotti said. "We have plays one young man does better than the
other. So we substitute by plays if need be, or we substitute by
series if need be. I think they’re both doing a good job. We
wouldn’t do this if they were not supportive of it and
understanding."

How long will it last? After all, both are juniors. Both will be
around next year.

"I think that certainly at some point a quarterback may become
the starter," Bellotti said. "Both have a lot to contribute to our
team. By two games from now we could have a starting quarterback.
Certainly by next year we could have a starting quarterback. But
the two quarterbacks best serve our needs at this point."

The announcement should be out today, as to which quarterback
the Bruins will face on Saturday. Then comes another week, another
game and another decision. Who will start next week, when the Ducks
play at home versus Utah? The Utes’ run defense is the best in the
WAC, so Oregon will have to air it out. Who’s best suited for the
job? Hmmm …