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Opportunity arrives for Costa or Thomas

EUGENE, Ore. -- Opportunity doesn't always arrive on a golden chariot. Often it appears amid the smoldering debris of a train wreck.

Such is the Oregon quarterback situation.

Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremiah Masoli gets suspended for the season after a burglary conviction? That means either senior Nate Costa or sophomore Darron Thomas will inherit an offense loaded with skill and possibility. If they play well, the Ducks figure to become a top-10 team and the Pac-10 favorite. If not, who knows how things go?

Both Costa and Thomas understand that a cloud hangs over their competition. Thomas calls Masoli his "best friend on the team." They room together before games. But neither is apologizing for embracing the unexpected opportunity.

"Obviously, the circumstances that started this competition are not ideal," Costa said. "Just having the opportunity my senior year is huge, though. It means a lot to me."

Many fans are intrigued by Thomas. His long, lean, 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame suggests Dennis Dixon. Only Thomas is hardly skinny, considering he's pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team. He's got a good arm and runs well.

And, of course, he's already produced 15 tantalizing minutes of fame.

In 2008, with the four quarterbacks who began the season ahead of him on the depth chart hurt, Thomas came off the bench as a true freshman against Boise State and nearly led the Ducks back from a 24-point deficit. He passed for 210 yards and three touchdowns and left everyone pondering his tremendous upside.

"You can see him getting better every day," coach Chip Kelly said. "Things are starting to slow down for him a little bit. He's a really, really smart kid."

Thomas was able to redshirt last year, but the Boise State experience whet his appetite. He doesn't seem overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events that could have him leading the Ducks in front of 100,000-plus fans at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium on Sept. 11.

"This whole time, I've been ready to play," he said. "I haven't been slacking because I'm not on the field."

While Kelly won't say who's ahead, more than a few observers who've watched spring practices tap Costa.

Recall that before the 2008 season, Costa was widely viewed as the prototypical leader of Kelly's spread-option attack. He could run and throw -- Kelly's a big fan of his compact motion -- and his ball work on the option plays was said to be nearly as artful as Dixon's.

Then he blew out his knee during the preseason and underwent surgery for a third time. Most wrote him off and just thought it was admirable he fought to come back as a reserve. When he started last year at UCLA, filling in for an injured Masoli, he acted mostly as a caretaker for the offense, completing just 9 of 17 passes for 82 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He looked tentative as a runner.

But Kelly has seen a more confident, athletic Costa this spring.

"Nate's smart. Nate's heady. He moves better than people give him credit for," Kelly said. "He's got a great command of our offense. He's a great leader. He's really throwing the ball well. He's really starting to pick it up."

Then the most important part: "He's kind of like that kid two years ago."

Kelly said he's not going to keep his final decision a secret until the week of the season opener against New Mexico. He'll make a call when a winner emerges. He said he's willing to play two guys but that's not his preference.

And he grows animated when asked if things are close in the competition, the tie goes to the younger player who will be around another three years.

"The future for us is right now," he said. "We are the defending Pac-10 champs and we are going to be good again next year. How good really depends on how well our quarterback plays. We're not building for, 'Let's play the younger guy because two years down the road we're going to be good.'"

That's the rub. If the Ducks get quality play at quarterback, this squad could be headed back to the Rose Bowl.

The train wreck that led to this opportunity for a backup quarterback, however, doesn't seem to be obsessing the Ducks as much as their fans. They seem confident that whoever takes the snaps will do fine, as will the 21 other starters.

"A lot people thought there would be a lot of turmoil -- angst -- over the quarterback position, but guys on our team know that Nate Costa has command [of] our offense as well as DT," linebacker Spencer Paysinger said. "We have two able quarterbacks. There wasn't really a cause for concern. We took a blow. Now we just need to recover."