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Can Mark Helfrich really replace Chip Kelly?

How do you replace a genius?

Everybody’s weighing in on this, and the national talking heads are climbing over each other to declare that this thorny question is the reason Oregon regresses this year.

Opponents will begin to adjust and figure out the no-huddle, up-tempo Oregon spread, the meme goes, and Mark Helfrich won’t have Chip Kelly’s requisite brilliance to have a counter for the counter of the counter. No coach could be as driven as Kelly, or as successful at stamping his identity on a football team and the mindsets of 85 young men.

No visor but a vision: Mark Helfrich looked comfortable and in charge running the Oregon Spring Game, and his team looked as focused and efficient as ever (Scott Olmos, USA Today sports).


Ridiculous. Mark Helfrich is not outmanned in a battle of wits with Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. He’s a keen football mind with a gift for understanding how things work and seeing both the big picture and small, vital details. He’s approachable and genuine. His players and coaches will go to war for him.

Some might be concerned that there could be a danger of a lapse in discipline or a subtle letdown in the work ethic without the intense, hard-driving Kelly to do the yelling, but that point of view forgets that the Oregon coaching staff is still intact. Pellum, Campbell, Radcliffe, Greatwood and Aliotti will have no problem providing the fire. There will be enough yelling when yelling is necessary.

Conversely, there has to be a whisper of worry: with all the opulence and creature comforts of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, with the atmosphere of privilege and every need catered to, do the Ducks run the danger of becoming a little bit soft? The Italian leather chairs and terrazzo floors and floor-to-ceiling televisions will be motivational fodder for Stanford and Washington. Can the Ducks maintain the edge and sense of sacrifice football requires? Those are questions to revisit in a few months.

Over time, Oregon football will change under Helf. It has to. It’s a different time and he’s a different personality. In the next five to seven years he faces the challenge of overhauling the coaching staff as that magnificent group of assistants near retirement. Every year there’s the challenge of rebirthing the program, finding 25 new players with the right combination of character and talent.

Helfrich’s first two coaching hires, Matt Lubick and Ron Aiken, suggest emphatically that he’ll attract men of experience and coaching talent. After all, Oregon’s become a premier job in college football with good pay, a history of success and superb facilities. Sharp people want to work with sharp people, and this is the most innovative place in the football universe.

It’s also easy to believe that Helfrich’s genuineness, small-town roots, and commitment to players and their success will play well in homes. He’ll connect with parents and win their trust. Athletes will readily see he’s a good guy to play for, running a system that’s fun to play in and can get you noticed at the next level.

As a game coach, Helfrich will do fine. He’s even-keel and not prone to panic–able to sift information quickly and make sound decisions under pressure. His perspective on the job, life and himself will allow him to make the difficult ones without fear or hesistancy. He’ll get things right, and constantly strive to get better in the dream job of his life. He’s not overwhelmed, and won’t be.

Saturday won’t tell us a lot. There won’t be enough hot water to test how Helfrich runs a game-winning drive. There won’t be any crucial moments or tension in a game the Ducks are favored to win by 59. But how he handles the nuances and manages a roster on a day everybody plays, how much time he assigns to stars like Marcus Mariota, Josh Huff, and De’Anthony Thomas, will give fans some small glimpses into his judgment and command.

It’s bound to be a better day than Chip Kelly’s debut, but the real, defining tests are just weeks away. Everything Duck fans have seen so far suggests the program and the players are dialed in on making this season everything it should be.

A feature on replacing Kelly by KEZI-TV’s Erik Elken, in which the players talk about their relationship with the new head coach:

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