Oregon quarterback spending summer on the diamond

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Oregon senior Dennis Dixon, the Ducks' projected starting quarterback this fall, is trying to hit left-handed pitchers in Florida this summer, instead of trying to hit receivers on campus.

Ducks coach Mike Bellotti isn't happy about it.

"I think he'd be better served, in my situation, reading defenses rather than reading curveballs," Bellotti said.

Dixon, 22, was selected in the fifth round of last month's major league draft (No. 168 overall) by the Atlanta Braves. He hadn't played baseball since his senior season at San Leandro High School near Oakland, but the Braves were impressed by his arm strength and athleticism.

Dixon, at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, has been inconsistent as the Ducks' quarterback the past two seasons. He won his first three starts as a sophomore in 2005, completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 540 yards with five touchdowns and only one interception during the games in which he replaced injured Kellen Clemens.

Last season, Dixon helped Oregon win its first four games, throwing a 23-yard touchdown to Brian Paysinger with 46 seconds to go in a controversial 34-33 win over Oklahoma. Three weeks later, however, Dixon threw three interceptions in a 45-24 loss at California and never regained his confidence.

Dixon threw 12 interceptions and only six touchdowns in the last nine games of 2006. The Ducks lost six times in the last three months of the season, including a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Pioneer PureVision Las Vegas Bowl, their fourth loss in a row. Dixon played so poorly down the stretch that he lost the starting job to Brady Leaf, who started the final two games but is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart for this fall.

Given his poor finish during Oregon's 7-6 season, Bellotti felt Dixon had plenty of work to do during the spring and summer.

"He has to improve his decision-making process and throw the long ball better," Bellotti said. "Everything else he can do. He needs greater consistency in game settings and more touch on the long ball. He can get better doing those things."

Bellotti hoped Dixon would make strides in those areas this summer. But instead of joining his teammates for voluntary passing drills and workouts in Eugene, Ore., Dixon flew to Orlando on June 14 to join the Gulf Coast Braves, the lowest level in the Braves' minor league system.

Bellotti realized there was a chance Dixon might be drafted by a major league team again -- he was selected in the 20th round of the 2003 draft by the Cincinnati Reds -- after the quarterback worked out for several baseball teams during the offseason. But Bellotti said he was surprised Dixon was drafted so high.

"It's semi-unusual for a guy that hasn't played since high school," Bellotti said. "But he's an extremely athletic guy and they obviously felt like that athleticism would translate over to baseball. I don't feel very good about it. But it's a situation that arose and a decision that Dennis made. I can't stand in the way of that. I do think he'd have the same opportunity in football if he spent as much time preparing here."

This isn't the first time baseball has caused a rift between a college football coach and his quarterback. When Steve Spurrier was coaching at Florida, quarterback Doug Johnson was a top-rated third baseman in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' minor league system. Johnson played rookie league baseball during the summers of 1996 and 1997, much to the chagrin of Spurrier, who wanted his quarterback in Gainesville learning the nuances of the passing game.

Most two-sport athletes are eventually forced to choose one sport over the other. Former Michigan quarterback Drew Henson flip-flopped between minor league baseball and college football before finally signing a $17 million contract with the New York Yankees and forgoing his final season with the Wolverines. Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton was Tennessee's starting quarterback in 1994 (until he was hurt and Peyton Manning took over) before he jumped to baseball. Joe Borchard was Stanford's starting quarterback until the Chicago White Sox selected him in the first round of the 2000 draft and paid him a record $5.3 million signing bonus to give up his senior season with the Cardinal.

In most cases, quarterbacks have returned to college football after failing to reach the major leagues in baseball. Chris Weinke spent six years playing in the Toronto Blue Jays' minor league system before enrolling at Florida State. He led the Seminoles to the 1999 national championship and won the 2000 Heisman Trophy. Matt Mauck played three years in the Chicago Cubs' system before playing at LSU, where he helped lead the Tigers to the 2003 BCS national title. Former Oregon quarterback Akili Smith played three years in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system before returning to junior college and then joining the Ducks.

Some quarterbacks chose baseball riches over college football. Notable major league players who sacrificed a chance to play quarterback in college include Boston Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon (North Carolina State), Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer (Florida State), Colorado Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday (Oklahoma State) and Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore (Washington).

Dixon won't have to choose between baseball and football until next spring -- if he's drafted by an NFL team. For the next three weeks, at least, he's concentrating on his baseball career. He is one of about 40 players on the Gulf Coast Braves' roster, a collection of newly signed rookies, young Latin-American players and other first-year pros. Dixon plays right field and center field and was hitting .103 (3-for-29) through nine games. He has struggled hitting curveballs and has struck out 11 times.

"It's been easy for the most part," Dixon said last week, after going 0-for-2 with a walk in a 19-0 loss to the Gulf Coast Indians at Disney's Wide World of Sports. "I've got the throwing and the running and defense down. I've just got to get more at-bats and get more comfortable at the plate. I've just got to learn to trust my hands as far as outside and inside hitting. Hitting left-handed pitchers has been hard. I've got to learn to see the rotation and spin on the ball."

Kurt Kemp, the Atlanta Braves' director of player development, said the franchise liked Dixon as a baseball prospect coming out of high school. But because Oregon doesn't field a baseball team, Dixon hasn't played the sport competitively in four years.

"Our scouting staff did a great job because they kept him on our radar," Kemp said. "He's an outstanding athlete and he's in good physical condition. Even though he throws a lot, the football throwing is different. We wanted to get him down here and get his arm and legs in baseball shape."

Dixon will play plenty of baseball in July. The Gulf Coast Braves play six or seven times per week, against five other teams in the North Division of the Gulf Coast League. They travel by bus to Florida cities such as Dunedin, Clearwater, Kissimmee and Lakeland. Most of the games are played before noon and are preceded by practices. The players are given Sundays off.

The Gulf Coast Braves' players live at a hotel near Disney World. They share a complimentary breakfast buffet with vacationing families, and the Braves cater most lunches. The players are given a per diem for dinner when they're playing on the road.

Dixon said he has remained in contact with Oregon's trainers and nutritionists to maintain his playing weight. He brought along the Ducks' playbook and practices his footwork on a lawn outside his team's clubhouse. Dixon said he throws a football with his baseball teammates and lifts weights as much as possible.

"Coach Bellotti told me the No. 1 thing was not to get hurt," Dixon said. "He told me to try not to get hit by too many pitches."

While Bellotti is concerned about Dixon's absence from the voluntary passing drills, Dixon said he isn't worried about missing the workouts because he's already familiar with the team's returning wide receivers, including two who are his roommates.

But Bellotti hoped Dixon would learn the nuances of new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's fast-paced, no-huddle offense, which is designed to get Dixon into a better rhythm throwing the ball. Kelly directed record-setting offenses at Division I-AA New Hampshire before replacing Gary Crowton as the Ducks' offensive coordinator after the 2006 season. Crowton left for the same position at LSU.

"We're running the same system, but in a different manner," Bellotti said. "I have no question Dennis can throw the ball and run. But it's more about the mental preparation and being able to watch film and come in and talk with the coaches about football. It's a difficult thing when one of your squad leaders is not around."

Bellotti said he advised Dixon to hold out for more money from the Braves. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Dixon received a signing bonus of less than $150,000 for a six-year commitment. He had to sacrifice his scholarship at Oregon to accept the bonus, although it's believed the Braves are paying the bill for his final season with the Ducks. Dixon graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in June.

"I think the Braves got him for a steal," Bellotti said.

Kemp said Dixon will remain with the Gulf Coast Braves for at least another week, then possibly move to the team's advanced rookie affiliate in Danville, Va. Dixon said he will definitely play football for the Ducks this season, and will return to Oregon in late July. The Ducks begin preseason practices Aug. 4.

"There was never any time when he was asked to make a choice," Kemp said.

Unless he is drafted by an NFL team and chooses to play pro football, Dixon will rejoin the Braves for spring training next year. The Braves have high hopes for him.

"If you've watched him play football at all, you can see he runs well and his arm is very strong," Kemp said. "He has good size and is going to continue to fill out. We're excited to have him. We think he's a terrific young man. We're looking forward to see where he can take his baseball career, especially once he's able to concentrate on baseball."

Even if that means concentrating less on football this summer. Dixon said he is prepared to be criticized if he gets off to a poor start at Oregon this fall, and he knows playing baseball this summer makes him an easy target.

"I'm ready for that," Dixon said. "I've had criticism throughout my football career. It's my career I'm trying to fulfill -- not their careers."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.