Ducks Need To Discover Five Things This Spring
By John Baker
Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich gets ready to start his second season at the helm when the Ducks begin spring practice April 1. And with all spring practice openings, there are questions to be asked, answers to be gleaned and plenty of optimism to spread to the press and fans. It's a time when everything is possible and the potential is endless.
Helfrich is coming off an 11-win season in his debut as head coach, and while that may have felt like underachieving given Oregon's national title goals, time will demonstrate that it was a great season. Now, on to season two and the questions that need answers. We'll talk about revamping a depleted secondary and a defensive line that needs new faces, as well as a new defensive coordinator, but we'll start this little journey in an unexpected spot.
Here's a look at six things Oregon needs to accomplish this spring:
1) Solidify the quarterback situation.
No, we're not talking about someone making a challenge to starter Marcus Mariota, one of the nation's best and brightest young quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel "West" has shown he's one of the nation's top quarterback talents, a potential Heisman finalist and likely a high draft choice in the 2015 NFL Draft.
However, in the vernacular of the Ducks, "who is next up?" Mariota needs a quality backup whom the Oregon staff trusts to run this offense if or when he goes down. A year ago, Mariota tried to play through a knee issue and watched his ability to hurt teams with the run disappear along with his laser-like passing accuracy. Suddenly, the Ducks quarterback was one-dimensional and putting balls into the stands or into the turf — and the offense suffered.
Job one for Helfrich and his staff is to decide on a No. 2 quarterback and make sure he's ready to play.
This is a big spring for sophomores Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie, the projected No. 2a and 2b in the quarterback battle heading into spring. It is vital for one of this duo — or another unknown — not only show command of this offense, but possess the skills to keep it running at nearly full throttle should Mariota suffer an injury. The coaching staff's reluctance to shove one of these two into the furnace of big-time football a year ago meant that the rest Mariota probably needed to heal the knee wasn't forthcoming, which may have prolonged the struggles a bit more than necessary.
Oregon needs a No. 2 who can play. Finding him is vital to safeguard what should be a stellar 2014 campaign.
But this battle goes beyond the Mariota injury factor and the upcoming season. Oregon's Hawaiian superstar likely is done after this season, meaning the auditions for 2015 already have begun. Oregon has done a great job of finding replacements for its departed quarterbacks and that's what you need if you are going to have national title ambitions each season.
This is Lockie and Rodrigues' moment to shine and they need to take it. Oregon's offense needs them to take it and the future of the program likely is in their hands. If they don't step up to the challenge, we may be seeing more reps for quarterbacks such as redshirt freshman Damian Hobbs, Taylor Alie or Morgan Mahalak.
2) Find effective faces along the defensive line.
To say the Ducks lost the heart of its defensive line is not only be fair, but scary moving forward. Some physical running teams bullied the Ducks up front, something that the coaching staff hopes to address. Losing guys like Taylor Hart, Ricky Havili-Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi is a ton of snaps and experience heading out the door.
Fortunately, plenty of potential returns. Turning that physical talent into production begins April 1.
Oregon looks at a projected starting front of Tony Washington (6-3, 244) as its rush end/linebacker, DeForest Buckner (6-7, 284) at a defensive end-tackle spot, Arik Armstead (6-8, 280) at another end spot and Alex Balducci (6-4, 290) at a tackle spot. There is decent size and good athleticism with this group, but they'll need to prove they can stop the inside running game and put pressure on the pocket consistently to move this defense to another level.
Armstead, in particular, is key to this. A huge signing for the Ducks out of Sacramento three years ago, Armstead has had some moments on the field, but hasn't put it all together to become the star many projected when he stepped onto campus. He's tall, long, strong and a serious athlete up front, so the time has come for the prized recruit to become the consistently disruptive force many have been waiting for.
But behind this experienced quartet are a lot of questions. Answers could come from players like Christian French (drop end), Sam Kamp (defensive tackle), Stetzon Bair or T.J. Daniels, who a year ago was a tight end. Oregon coaches quietly have raved about his conversion to defense. He should be interesting to keep an eye on. .
In the past, Oregon has prided itself on playing six, seven and eight defensive linemen during games to keep everyone fresh. The four projected starters are proof of the strategy's effectiveness, as each have played plenty of snaps. But for the process to continue, Oregon needs to find a few more big bodies who can hold their own from end to end. Finding quality depth along the defensive line will be key to helping the defense rise to the level Oregon's coaching staff would like.
3) Speaking of getting defensive (coordinator) ...
Don Pellum had been a good soldier in the Oregon coaching ranks, having done plenty of the position coaching work leading up to the moment Oregon named him defensive coordinator.
Pellum doesn't have an easy task. He must replace a large part of his secondary, find quality depth along the defensive line and implement his overall defensive scheme after the long tenure of Nick Aliotti. It's not easy task to fill big shoes, but Pellum has gone about it with vigor and professionalism.
Now the hard part. Oregon's defense has garnered a reputation as being unable to handle the rough stuff inside. Most of that premise has come courtesy of Stanford the last two years as we've watched the Cardinal hammer away at Oregon between the tackles. Whether it's true or not isn't the issue. It's the perceived weakness in the Oregon defense, and perception becomes reality. Pellum is tasked with changing that perception this spring and carrying it over to the fall camp.
Oregon's defense continues to possess plenty of speed, quickness and athleticism. The question now is whether Pellum will bring a new, physical attitude to the defense while also trying to fit the scheme and personnel to his liking.
The Ducks need to solve the Stanford riddle to move forward, not only in the Pac-12, but on the national scene as well. To do that, Pellum must find the players and install the mentality that will help Oregon overcome what has begun to feel like physical bullying by the Cardinal. No doubt other teams have taken note and will test Oregon between the tackles with a physical running game in 2014. The Ducks will out-talent and out-score most teams, but there will be the odd game where the facemasks are going to have to meet and the bodies will have to violently clash.
Pellum must install a mentality that not only can handle smash-mouth football, but embraces it.
How Pellum fills the holes, establishes his philosophy and uses the many pieces of the defensive puzzle will begin in earnest April 1. But upping the ante on physical toughness may be his biggest task.
4) Find new faces for the secondary.
Oregon lost starting safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson, as well as early NFL entry Tarrence Mitchell from its secondary. But replacing the starters won't be the only key this spring. The team needs to develop the depth that has become an Oregon trademark.
No doubt it's nice to start the revamping process with all-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, but the questions around him need answers. This spring could provide them.
This is the season Dior Mathis and Troy Hill get a chance at a season-long starting spot at cornerback, while Erick Dargan, who has had some great moments as a backup, likely will get a full-time shot at a starting safety spot. But what's intriguing about Oregon's spring secondary battles is that there are some new faces that could impact it greatly.
Keep an eye on Dominique Harrison, a junior college transfer who arrived on campus in the winter. He's raised a few eyebrows with his physical ability during winter workouts and now will get a chance to demonstrate why he was so coveted out of junior college. Another intriguing prospect is Tyree Washington, who is physically gifted and has the added bonus of standing 6-foot-4 with a nice wingspan. Both these guys have playmaker potential, according to coaches and players who've seen them up close. Three others to keep an eye on: Chris Seisay, who some have said may be the most improved youngster in the secondary, as well as Reggie Daniels and Isaac Dixon.
Oregon tends to play from the lead quite a bit, forcing teams to put the ball in the air more than they want to. With that, the potential for making plays goes up for a ball-hawking secondary that deserves its reputation. Look for new faces to emerge and the ability to turn errant throws into big plays to continue.
5) Find replacements for Josh Huff and De'Anthony Thomas in the passing game.
It's not like Oregon is without threats with Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison returning, but Oregon's offense functions best when the receiving targets are all over the field. Finding some more big-play type receivers this spring will be another work in progress and, for as much as there are some older guys looking to fill those roles, keep an eye on two youngsters.
True freshman Jalen Brown and redshirt freshman Darren Carrington have created whispers aplenty. Carrington was on the scout team a year ago and demonstrated that extra gear you like from a receiver, but brings soft hands to the party as well. He's also 6-foot-2, which gives him a size advantage over most defensive backs. Brown is an early enrollee out of high school and has caught everyone's attention with his physical ability and mental toughness. Helfrich said he's been impressed with Brown's maturity.
The Ducks have plenty of receivers, but in these two youngsters, the feeling is they've caught something extra special. This spring will be a good time to see who emerges to challenge for a starting spot or considerable playing time. If these two rise to the occasion, it could be one of the more exciting developments for the 2014 season and beyond.
6) The head coach needs to improve in his second year.
It will be hard to quantify this, but the standard refrain is that a head coach makes the greatest leap in development between his first and second year. Helfrich enters his second season with a year's worth of experiences — good and bad — to draw upon as he heads toward his second spring practice.
Given that he opened with an 11-win season, you'd expect there to be little need to change anything, but a good coach knows that the evaluation process after the first year brings plenty of tweaks and twists. (But don't expect much to change in terms of demeanor, tempo and organization for the Ducks football program this spring.)
Chip Kelly's Oregon coaching legacy lives on in a system that has been wildly successful and in little need of revamping. No, Helfrich will make subtle changes this spring and into the fall. There were concerns about his ability to motivate when the Ducks got trounced at Arizona after a Pac-12 title shot reappeared due to a Stanford loss; about the team's toughness mentally and physically; about his handling of Mariota's knee injury.
All those questions have validity, but aren't necessarily big issues. Expect Helfrich to continue on his current path with minor adjustments here and there. The Oregon football machine is well-oiled and effective, so large-scale tinkering isn't realistic. Helfrich will be a better coach in 2014 because he ca draw upon the experiences of 2013.
Spring practice 2014 will be a natural extension of that improvement.
Oregon Spring Practice Schedule
Week 1: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday (April 1,2 and 4)
Week 2: Monday, Wednesday and Friday (April 7, 9 and 11)
Week 3: Monday, Wednesday and Friday (April 14, 16 and 18)
Week 4: Monday, Wednesday and Friday (April 21, 23 and 25)
Week 5: Monday and Wednesday (April 28 and 30)
Spring Game: Saturday, May 3, at 11 a.m.
As usual, all Oregon spring practices other than the spring game will be closed to the media and public.