John Baker

Helfrich Instilling Blue-Collar Mentality In Oregon Ducks

Created on Aug. 06, 2014 5:49 AM EST

According to the U.S. Today coaches poll, all Oregon has to do to reach the four-team national championship bracket is hold serve. The ducks were ranked fourth in the poll behind Florida State, Alabama and Oklahoma, respectively.

No problem, right? Well, they don’t play the season in the polls and there are more than enough stumbling blocks along the 2014 path to make second-year coach Mark Helfrich, his staff and players pay attention.

That’s the big picture, but right now, the Ducks are interested in the little things – like getting back into the swing of practice. Oregon opened fall drills Monday and everyone from the veterans to the new kids on the block had to get used to the tempo that Oregon likes to practice at.

That means there are plenty of reps to go around and plenty of opportunities for both the young and old alike to be reminded that the Ducks jog everywhere, they don’t walk, and they get a lot done.

Helfrich will spend his second season atop the Oregon program answering far less questions about succeeding Chip Kelly and more about the possibilities and potential that resides within this program. He said that Oregon certainly likes the idea of being in the championship discussion, but will do what it always does – stay focused on what it’s doing. If the first days of practice are any indication, he likes where his team is starting, noting that if the early-going was any indication, the Ducks were in pretty good shape.

With camp opened, there are questions to be answered on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Oregon’s wide receiver corps is a bit of a question mark, even with Keanon Lowe returning as a starter. Lowe is known more as a blocker and with Bralon Addison on the shelf with a spring practice knee tear, the question of who will catch passes from all-American quarterback Marcus Mariota will need some answers.

Mariota himself raises some questions. One of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the land, Mariota suffered a knee injury late in the 2013 season that not only affected his play dramatically, but raised questions about developing a productive backup. Then, he stunned many by deciding to return to Oregon for another season when a likely top-10 draft position was his for the taking.

Already prolific statistically at the position, what will improvement look like for Mariota in 2014? Coaches have called for him to be more of a vocal leader and as fall drills commenced, he’s been in the middle of the group, barking out commands and instructions for drills. Will he run? And how much? How will he bear the Heisman front-runner talk and the potential for being the No. 1 draft choice in the 2015 NFL Draft?

On many levels, Mariota is a known entity, but there are still things that will be unique to this season that he will have to adjust to. With all eyes on No. 8, how will he handle the pressure and break in a new group of receivers in the process?

Defensively, there is experience aplenty in the secondary and at linebacker. It is the defensive line and last year’s struggles against power-running teams that has people concerned.

Three years after arriving on campus, the junior class is about to arrive. DeForrest Buckner and Arik Armstead at defensive end and Alex Balducci at tackle form the basis of the Duck defensive line. While they have plenty of playing experience, they haven’t been the focal point before. Now that guys like Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi have departed, they will get their chance to establish themselves up front. And they need to. Oregon struggled against teams that were comfortable lining up and running the ball – Stanford and Arizona come to mind. With Michigan State coming to Autzen Stadium early in the season and Stanford still standing in the way, stopping the run will be a priority if a national championship run is really in the cards.

While Oregon’s defensive line has been solid the last couple of years, the three guys who step into those spots bring far more athleticism to the table. The potential for greatness is there. The question Helfrich and his staff must get answers to are whether they will be able to be the players they seem capable of being – and can some players from a group of youngsters emerge to give Oregon the kind of defensive line depth they’ve enjoyed for years? The talent is there. Now it’s a question of play-to-play production.

Helfrich has added a little something clever to the mix to remind his players that for all the sizzle and sparkle the Oregon football program seems to be known for, it’s hard work that leads to improvement and, ultimately, success.

When players reported over the weekend, they were given gray T-shirts to wear for weightlifting and walk-throughs. Along the collar of those T-shirts was a band of blue – a reminder from Helfrich and his staff that the blue collar mindset will be expected this season. It’s an attitude and mentality Helfrich wants his team to remember daily.

Helfrich noted that Oregon has earned a reputation across the country from its new facilities, the array of different uniform combinations and its marketing plan, but “work is key.”

Earlier this week, the Ducks got to work on a 2014 campaign that could be special.

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