Ducks Possess Track Speed — Literally
By John Baker
Speed, the final frontier. Well, not at Oregon.
It's a commodity the Oregon Ducks have developed into a lethal weapon on the football field in a way no other program ever has. The Ducks not only want fast guys running around doing miraculous things, they want to play the game faster than anyone can handle. They've built a national reputation by doing just that, opening the door for coach Chip Kelly to step into the pro ranks and figure to do more of the same under new coach Mark Helfrich.
One of the trademarks of Kelly and now Helfrich is their enthusiastic embrace of their athletes turning to other sports to find even more of the elusive nectar that is speed. Over the years, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and other Ducks have run track on the hallowed grounds of Hayward Field. That trend continues this year as Helfrich has watched Dior Mathis, B.J. Kelly and De'Anthony Thomas serve as key cogs to the Oregon sprint program.
Thomas has a couple sprint wins this spring as he sandwiched meets around spring practice, but missed out on the team's Pac-12 title win over the weekend nursing an injury that kept him out of the season's final two meets and the spring game. Kelly and Mathis, however, were active members of the sprint corps and helped the 4x100 really to a third-place finish — and the Ducks men to a Pac-12 title.
You see, Kelly and Helfrich both understand that speed is one thing in the training grounds, but an entirely different thing when one man is chasing another around the track. There's speed, then there's competitive speed, which track hones and fosters in athletes, football players included. Kelly and then-track coach Vin Lannana formed a symbiotic relationship based around speed. Kelly wanted his players to get faster and Lannana needed speed to help the track team. For four years, the pair enjoyed the mutual benefits of their hunt for speed. Helfrich apparently agrees with that philosophy, allowing his athletes to compete and win for new track coach Robert Johnson.
Kelly once called the decision to have his football players work with the track team a "no-brainer." His players worked hard with the track team and returned to the football program faster. Not many big-time college football coaches agree with that, preferring to oversee every nuance and faucet of their players' development — micromanage all that they can control.
Kelly, and now Helfrich, have bought into a different philosophy. They have broadened the search for speed to the one other collegiate sport that deals with it on a big-time level — track and field. And that broad-based mindset has yielded dividends on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
Mathis, a junior cornerback, said going between track and football wasn't a big deal and that with all the running the football team does, that sport helps his track work. Doing both, he said, has been something he's used to and that he loves to do.
It appears he's not alone.