The Helfrich Manifesto: A Blueprint For Oregon's Coach
By John Baker
New Oregon coach Mark Helfrich will have a lot on his plate this season as he takes over for the wildly popular Chip Kelly. He'll be under a severe microscope and be the victim of chronic Sunday morning quarterbacking if the Ducks don't fly in Kelly-like proportions. So often, coaching changes occur when the program in question is a chronic loser and looking for a spark that will drive it toward possible league titles and the always-coveted bowl bids.
Well, Helfrich isn't taking over that type of program. Under Kelly's stewardship, the Ducks enter the 2013 season as a national championship contender with multiple all-American candidates and expectations that things could and should be better than 2012 — a 12-win season. That's why it is vital that Helfrich hold tightly to the template Kelly carved into the psyche of Ducks Nation and his players before running off to see if Eagles could fly as fast as Ducks did under his tutelage.
It is vital while Helfrich carves out a niche as his own man while leading the Ducks, he keeps that template of success close — very close — while establishing his own unique touches to the program. Here are five things he should focus on that will keep the train running this fall.
Herein is the Helfrich success manifesto:
1. Just Run, Baby
Continually mixed into the narrative of the Ducks during the departure of Kelly, the promotion of Helfrich and the conclusion of the team's spring workouts has been this need for the Ducks to pass more. You've heard the murmurs: Helfrich is a passing coach. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is ready to take on more responsibility in the passing game. Oregon's receivers and backs are all fast and potential big-play receiving targets.
Let's hope Helfrich resists the temptation to turn the Ducks into Air Oregon. Why? Because that's not what has powered the Oregon offensive engine during Kelly's time at Oregon. The Ducks have rushed for more than 3,000 yards in four of the last five seasons and Helfrich must make a commitment to try and hit the number again in 2013. While De'Anthony Thomas as a 20-carry back is dubious at best, the Ducks need to see if Byron Marshall or some combination of new and old can deliver the slashing, drive-extending runs that so characterized Oregon's success. To abandon the run because there is no LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner in the stable is short-sighted and goes against the grain of what makes this offense tick.
Remember, Oregon was a run-first offense under Kelly, using that gut-busting running game to open the field so that the big plays are possible. Should Helfrich decide to listen to the inner demons and try to unleash Mariota and Oregon as a passing offense, he will accomplish what most of Oregon's opponents simply can't do — turn the team into a one-dimensional entity.
Even if it takes three or four games to pound out the personalities that will make up the rushing game, Oregon's new coach needs to invest that time and energy. By running the ball effectively, he not only opens the field for all that elite speed, he also better protects Mariota. The best way to keep the potential Heisman frontrunner upright and productive is to have defenses flinching at a running game that gashes them.
In this, Helfrich needs to learn a valuable lesson. For all the flash and big passing plays the Ducks routinely deliver, Kelly knew it was a direct product of a devastating running game.
2. Keep Going For It
There are few things more demoralizing than a penalty at a key moment of the game, but one of those is a team going for it on fourth down and making it. That little ploy became a regular staple of the Oregon offense. You'd look over at the sidelines at Chip Kelly and he'd have that little smirk his face underneath his dirty visor and you wondered what he knew that no one else did.
I'll tell you. He knew that if you gave him four plays to get 10 yards rather than just three, the odds should be in his favor, not the defense's. And you know what, he's right. With the type of offense Oregon runs and the desire of that offense to destroy the conditioning of its opponent, going for and converting those fourth downs is devastating strategy, one we hope Helfrich will continue to follow.
3. Find A Kicker, Please
Alejandro Maldonado appears to be everything a college program wants in a kicker — good leg, intelligent, a bit of a track record, etc. Maldonado will enter the fall as the top placekicker, but he's far from a sure thing as part of that track record includes some costly misses that forced Chip Kelly to forgo field goals at some points. That can't happen this year for Helfrich. The new coach needs his kicker to make key kicks or force a repeat of some fourth down tries that probably weren't prudent the last two years.
Maldonado must either prove to be the guy or the Ducks should take a long, long look at incoming freshman Matt Wogan.
For all the success the Ducks have had, the field goal game just hasn't shined the way you'd have hoped. Maldonado nailed a 48-yard field goal during the spring game, so maybe the mind is right and he'll convert the field goals he missed last year. But Oregon coaches talked as if the kicking job is still an open door, so it is key that Helfrich find "his" kicker, and that kicker needs to respond.
You could tell Kelly had lost faith in his kicker a year ago. A repeat of that scenario just weakens the Ducks.
4. Draw Your Colt
Coach Helfrich, amidst all that glittering speed that can turn a simple hitch pattern into a 76-yard score, don't neglect the big guy lined up just outside your tackles. Tight end Colt Lyerla is one of the nation's best-kept secrets, a combination of receiver, blocker and running back that has few peers in the college game.
Oh, you can toss out names like Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz, both high choices in the recent NFL Draft, but the truth is they benefited from more targets than Lyerla got in 2012 because the Ducks like to score from the everywhere — the water cooler, the concession stand, the parking lot — everywhere with anybody. However, pound-for-pound, there may be no better tight end in the land than Lyerla, who played running back in high school and demonstrated he has pretty good speed in a similar package with the Ducks.
The feeling here is that his 25 catches a year ago were a little light for his talents. Nearly half of those came in the season's final four games. As Helfrich guides this offense into its post-Kelly run, looking Lyerla's way more often will not only benefit this offense, but help in the development of Mariota, who needs to know how to use a tight end as he starts looking seriously at the NFL next season.
5. Understand The Culture, Coach
Perhaps most important for Helfrich, he must understand the culture Kelly built and how fully and completely the players and Ducks Nation bought into it. There is no other program in the nation that plays the conditioning card the way Oregon does. The players and fans take great pride in that. Helfrich needs to embrace it, go with it and try to advance it.
The Ducks spent five years doing something new and innovative in terms of the number of plays in a game. The players who have been in the system have seen unprecedented success and national adulation. As the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for four of those years, Helfrich has his fingerprints on much of that success and the strategy behind it.
It is important that any tweaks or changes he makes do nothing to slow the engine of what has been a well-tuned sports car. It is Helfrich's team now, but it's still Kelly's template, and in this case, that's how it should stay. Oregon football's culture is one of speed and pace in all things. Chip Kelly demonstrated how that could change the way college football is played. Helfrich needs to embrace it and see if he can improve the need for speed.