In any other world, Mark Helfrich's first year as Oregon Ducks head football coach would have been seen as a magnificent success. 11-2, Alamo Bowl win, returning a top Heisman Trophy Candidate...
But this is an Oregon Ducks fan base that got tremendously spoiled during the Chip Kelly Era. In the four years of the CKE, the Ducks went to four straight BCS Bowl games (Rose, BCS Title, Rose, Fiesta) and won three straight conference titles. I wondered what the reaction would be when Oregon didn't go to a BCS game, I just didn't think it would be last year when we found out. Oregon seemed poised to make it to at least Pasadena until they got whooped by Arizona in the upset of the year, 42-16. That seemed to be the week everything went wrong for Oregon. They then needed a last-minute comeback to beat the Beavs in the Civil War, and San Antonio seemed like a fortunate outcome after that- even though they were 10-2 and many thought Oregon should have gotten a Sugar Bowl invite over Oklahoma. Except the Sugar Bowl recently inked a deal to take the Big 12 Champion (like Oklahoma) if they're not part of the new four-team College Football Playoff, so it would have been bad form for them to sign the deal and then not take a Big 12 team when the Ducks and Sooners both were at-large teams and both had identical 10-2 records in the regular season.
Then De'Anthony Thomas declared for the NFL (if you read the release from January carefully, it says he's withdrawing from school immediately- which I imply to mean he wouldn't have passed GPA muster at all had he stayed) but Marcus Mariota didn't. And if you're going to pick one of the two to stay, Marcus was the easy choice.
The Flyin' Hawaiian enters the season as the Heisman choice for people who don't want Florida State's Jameis Winston to win two in a row, and the top of a deep Pac-12 QB class (10 conference QB's return, including five from the North Division). But seemingly every QB in the Oregon Blur Offense has had injury problems the longer they stay in the system. It started with Dennis Dixon blowing out his knee in 2007, derailing the Ducks national championship chances. Jeremiah Masoli was the exception- but he smoked himself off the team. I guarantee you Darron Thomas was more hurt than he really was- remember when Bryan Bennett looked like the better QB most of 2011? And now there's Mariota. He's the only Oregon QB since the Blur was installed to be the starting signal-caller three years running. Thomas only started in 2010 and 2011. Masoli started every game in 2009, but in 2008 he split time with Justin Roper and even Thomas. The Blur takes a toll on the legs of a QB, who is asked to sprint every play and get hit every play and get knocked down every play. It's a question of Mariota's off-season conditioning to make sure his knees can take it.
The guy snapping the ball to Mariota remains unchanged, and that makes a big difference when your center is a veteran. Next year it'll be an issue, but this year it isn't, because Hronis Grasu is back. The Ducks return four of their five offensive linemen, even if they have to switch some guys around because of a season-ending injury to Tyler Johnstone. That alone will help Mariota.
|Keanon Lowe is Oregon's top returning wideout... with 3 TD's last year|
De'Anthony may be gone as a guy to get the ball to, but Thomas Tyner should be better at running back- and hold onto the ball more. Don't forget Byron Marshall. Josh Huff is reunited with Chip in Philly, so wide receiver is one again a question. Braylon Addison lost for the season in the spring means Portland native Keanon Lowe is the only wideout to return that has seen any sort of playing time. But the Ducks seem to find solid wideouts all the time. At tight end, Johnny Mundt caught three TD's as a true freshman and at least has a blue-collar name to make him seem like someone who will succeed there.
On defense, the Ducks lose their mouthpiece, coordinator Nick Aliotti, who retired after having as much fun as you could have in that position. As is traditional in situations like this, longtime assistant Don Pellum takes over. He will apparently coach from the sidelines and not the press box like Aliotti and many d-coordinators. He's used to being on the field, but whether it's the right approach, who the heck knows. He has one of the best defensive backs in the country in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who will basically play center field for the Ducks. Surprisingly, the Ducks led the Pac-12 in passing defense (204.5 ypg), and Olomu is largely to credit for that.
No need to dwell on the opponent in week one. South Dakota (7:30 pm PT kickoff Saturday night on the Pac-12 Network) went 4-8 in the Missouri Valley Conference last season. Mariota should own the Oregon career record for touchdowns midway through the first quarter- he and Joey Harrington are currently tied with 79. He also needs four passing TD's to become Oregon's all-time leader there (Darron Thomas has 66) and 332 yards to become Oregon's all-time passing yards leader (Bill Musgrave has 8,140).
He could get them by halftime, really. If his knee holds up. If not, Mark Helfrich's second season would be off to a start that might really be bad, as opposed to last year's “failure.”
|"Good job, good effort."|
Photos courtesy: deviantart.com, dailyemerald.com, and dailyemerald.com (again)
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