Spring Football: The Mark Helfrich era begins at Oregon

(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)

First Practice: April 2
Spring Game: April 27

Spring camp is set to open at Oregon on Tuesday, and like everything they do with their football program up in Eugene, practice will be a fast-paced affair. Despite being one of the final programs to start spring ball, the Ducks will end practice by the end of this month with an April 27 spring game.   

But in case you haven’t been paying attention (and frankly, we suspect you have), things will be different at Oregon than they have been each of the past four years. That’s because for the first time since April of 2009, the great Chip Kelly will no longer be roaming the sidelines and barking instructions out of the side of his mouth. The coach who led Oregon to four straight BCS bowl games has taken his talents to the NFL, and been replaced by long-time offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.

And, above all, it is Helfrich who is the star of the show at Oregon this spring. The offense returns mostly intact, the defense should be strong, and there’s plenty of star-power with Marcus Mariota, De’Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff. In a lot of ways, the 2013 Ducks may actually be the most talented team Oregon has had since Kelly took over the reins of the program prior to the 2009 season.  

But it’s Helfrich who everyone will be watching.

Stability Factor (1=chaos, 5=rock solid): 4.0

Of all the programs transitioning into a new coaching regime this spring, it’s hard to argue that any is more stable than the Ducks’. The system will stay the same, most of the staff will stay the same, and little in terms of practice or preparation will change in the transition from Helfrich to Kelly. Frankly, just about the only thing that will change is the guy who is giving the pre-practice pep-talks.

At the same time, just because things have remained status quo in Eugene, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Helfrich is still…

Under the Microscope: Mark Helfrich

Traditionally this is a spot reserved for a player or position group, but in the case of Oregon, there is no one who is under more of a microscope than the new head coach. Again, the scheme is the same and the players running it are all pretty much the ones who did it in 2012. But the guy calling the shots? That’s a totally different ball-game all together.

And it’s because of that, that Helfrich enters the spring as the biggest uncertainty surrounding the Ducks’ football program. There are so many things a head coach has to take on- from game-planning, to disciplining unruly players and handling media obligations- that an assistant doesn’t, and it’s impossible to know how a man will handle it until they’re actually, well, under the microscope.

Now in Helfrich’s defense, these are questions that are going to take months to fully answer. In the case of some, it will take years.

But they’ll at least start to be answered this spring.

Now, let’s talk something besides the new coach, beginning with…

Locked and Loaded: The skill positions

Frankly, the real answer here is “the defensive backfield,” where the Ducks return all four starters. But let’s be real here: You didn’t click on this link to read about Oregon’s DB’s. So instead, let’s transition to the offensive side of the ball where the Ducks’ could be as explosive as ever.

Yes, Kenjon Barner (and his 1,000 yards rushing) are gone, but quarterback Marcus Mariota (32 touchdowns passing, five rushing) returns to lead an offense which could actually have more overall skill position depth than at any point in any of the last few years. We all know about De’Anthony “How Dare You Consider Playing Me At Defensive Back Lane Kiffin,” Thomas, who tallied 18 total touchdowns last year, but don’t sleep on top receiver Josh Huff (seven receiving touchdowns) either. Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison combined for 44 catches last spring also.

But really, the key for 2013 could be in the incoming recruiting class. Local legend Thomas Tyner (who scored 47 touchdowns and rushed for close to 3,500 yards as a senior in 2012) highlights a group featuring three or four skill position players who are capable of stepping in and contributing immediately.

Jockeying For Position: Linebackers

Of course while the offense should continue to put up points at will, the defense will probably give up more than the 21.6 they allowed in 2012 as well. That’s in part because offenses around the Pac-12 should only continue to get better (you could actually make a case that- at least in theory- everyone other than USC should be improved entering 2013), but it’s also because the Ducks’ have some holes to fill on defense.

The linebackers are specifically concerning, where stalwarts Michael Clay (an All-Pac 12 performer in 2012) and Kiko Alonso (the Defensive MVP of the 2012 Rose Bowl) have both graduated, and where hybrid defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan is gone too. They’ll be replaced by a handful of guys like Tyson Coleman, Derrick Malone, who do have experience, just not very much of it. Veteran Boseko Lokombo (say go ahead and say that 10 times fast!) will take on a bigger role also.  

Being able to fill the void on defense (and in turn slow down some of these fast-paced Pac-12 offenses) should be the No. 1 focus of the Ducks this spring.

Name to Know: Defensive lineman Arik Armstead

When we reflect back on the Chip Kelly era in five, 10 or 20 years, there’s a very real possibility that Armstead ends up as the most significant recruit he ever signed. Understand that it was one thing for Kelly to convince a smaller scat-backish type running back like De’Anthony Thomas to come to Eugene. It was a quite another to convince Armstead- a 6’8 defensive tackle with an NFL body- to do the same.  

Regardless, Armstead is now entering his sophomore season, after a solid if not spectacular 2012 campaign. He finished last season with 26 total tackles, 2.0 TFL’s and 0.5 a sack, but with Jordan gone, Armstead will need to take on a bigger role, and put up bigger numbers in 2013.

Well, expect him to do just that. Armstead could blossom into an All-Pac 12 type defensive presence in 2013.

Spring Will Be A Success If… Helfrich Puts His Stamp on This Program

Again, we don’t mean to make this whole thing about Helfrich…except, well, it kind of is. While he’s certainly not the only first-year head coach to take over this spring, understand that he is the only first-year head coach taking over a team with National Championship expectations.

And make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what the Ducks are: BCS title contenders.

Of course whether they get there or not will depend on whether or not Helfrich is able to put his stamp on this program, a process which starts this spring. Nobody expects him to be Chip Kelly (and frankly, most probably don’t want him to be), but at the same time, everyone- from players to fellow assistant coaches- have to understand that he is now running the ship, and for this team to reach their full capabilities have to fully believe in what he’s doing.

Now to the credit of Helfrich, in his first few months on the job he’s basically done everything right. Beyond the standard excellence that every new coach has on the booster circuit, Helfrich also made headlines for his aggressiveness on the recruiting trail too. In the process, he not only held Kelly’s class mostly intact, but also added a number of new, big-name players as well.

Then again there’s a big difference between winning mythical recruiting battles off the field and getting victories on the field. And like every coach in college football, it’s the latter by which he’ll be judged.

We don’t know yet how the Ducks will look on game-day under Helfrich.

But on Tuesday, we’ll start to get an answer as to how this program will look under the new coach.

For all his opinion, insight and analysis, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.