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Analysis: Butkus finalist anchors retooled defense

By Charles Renning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday September 12, 2003

If this were last year, the Wildcat offense would be licking its chops at the possibility of going against an Oregon defense that finished last in the Pacific 10 Conference, giving up 409.3 yards per game.

But with the Ducks retooling their defensive unit in the offseason, Oregon's defense looks to be a much-improved squad compared to a year ago.

Six starters return from what was an inexperienced group last year, including three of the four defensive backs who gave up 35 touchdown passes a year ago as a unit.

Oregon Ducks

· Location: Eugene, Ore.
· Enrollment: 19,091
· Founded: 1876
· 2002 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Pac-10)
· Head coach: Mike Belotti
· Player to watch: LB Kevin Mitchell

With a year behind it and a game-tested group returning, the team has to improve on one of the worst defenses in school history.

In the Ducks' first two games this season, they have given up just 264.5 yards a game, and they look to continue the trend against Arizona's struggling offense tomorrow.

"They are going to be a good team," said UA freshman quarterback Ryan O'Hara, who combined with sophomore Nic Costa to throw for just 91 yards in Arizona's 59-13 loss to LSU last week. "They are always well-coached and they go hard."

A big reason for the Ducks' new hope on the defensive side of the ball lies with senior linebacker Kevin Mitchell.

Mitchell returns as the Ducks' leading tackler from a year ago, when he was selected for the All Pac-10 second team with 114 tackles.

Mitchell has gained the most attention from Wildcat coaches and players throughout the week, and even received a pretty big compliment from head coach John Mackovic.

"There is no one like Kevin Mitchell playing football in college," he said. "If I were a regular fan he would be a favorite of mine. He's not a favorite this week. He energizes that team by the way he plays and the way he does things."

Mitchell became the first Oregon player in seven years to record back-to-back seasons with over 100 tackles and will break into the top 10 on the career tackles list in Eugene with 62 more stops, a mark he should have no trouble reaching.

"Its fun to watch him (play)," Mackovic said. "He blitzes, he covers, he knocks tackles down. He just plays hard, and it's infectious because you see other people on that team playing like that."

At 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Mitchell is the smallest of the three starting Oregon linebackers, but has been the most productive over his last 3 seasons with the Ducks.

"You just take a look at him and you know there is no nonsense with him," Mackovic said. "When he steps on the field, he means business."

For the second year in a row, Mitchell is an early candidate for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation's top linebacker. He has made solid strides in being named to the finalist list with 13 tackles in the Ducks first two games, including a team-high seven in the team's season-opening win against Mississippi State.

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