This is the honeymoon period, the era of good feeling before the endless scrutiny and potential fan mutiny. When it passes, all Mark Helfrich has to do to be considered a success is average 50 points a game, win 90% of his games and a National Championship. Renaud Lavillenie himself wouldn’t set the bar this high, but Helf is on the runway, blowing out two breaths and rocking into his rhythm, getting ready to plant and fly.
He thinks he can do it. You have to admire a man who optimistically sets out to succeed a genius. Chip Kelly went 46-7, earned four BCS bowl trips and a UPS commercial, but now the former Southern Oregon quarterback has to display el gigante cojones of his own. Pop quiz hotshot: it’s fourth and one at your own 35, the NCAA is on line one, and Kenjon Barner is preparing for the NFL combine. What do you do?
Photo right: Mark Helfrich greeted Oregon fans and the media with enthusiasm, sincerity, laid-back Northwest humor and cordiality, but to keep them won over, he has to win (usatoday.com photo).
Failure is not an option in Eugene, and that’s pretty remarkable when you consider how long Duck fans lived with mediocrity. We loved the Ducks when they were absolutely miserable and only occasionally competent, but nobody wants to go back to the days of 3-8 and three and out, when a Weedeater Bowl bid and a scarce win over Washington were crowning achievements.
Thirty years ago quarterback Mike Jorgensen led the Ducks with 938 yards, 5 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The team exceeded expectations at 4-6-1, but endured both insult and injury. They lost to Pacific 21-15 in the season opener. Ohio State clubbed them them in the Horseshoe 31-6 in game two, the kind of paycheck sacrificial slaughter the team had to accept to balance the budget in the days before Phil Knight and the 3.2 million dollar locker room. The misery continued, as misery often does. Don James and his despicable Washington Huskies romped 32-3, a desolate trip to the desolate Palouse ended 24-7, and the Civil War was a nothing-nothing tie they nicknamed The Toilet Bowl.
No one ever rises to low expectations. It’s remarkable to consider the transformation in Oregon football, how different now is from historical reality. A team with no natural recruiting base and not much tradition has become a standard of excellence and the circled game in the PAC-12. Now everybody wants to beat Oregon; then it was a given and a cause for derision.
Defensive coordinators are an endlessly scheming lot, slaving over greaseboards, watching endless loops of videotape in darkened rooms, yelling themselves hoarse in meeting rooms, hunched over a tackling dummy like the Hulk in his moment of transformation. You wouldn’t like them when they’re angry. They’re prone to crusades, spit-flying diatribes, sloganeering and singular obsessions. This year most have a single goal that festers like a boil on their scabbed, bleeding consciousness: beat the Ducks, and stop the spread. In 2012 the Webfoots put 70 on Colorado, 62 on the 7-6 USC Trojans, 52 on Washington, and 51 on Washington State. They trounced the Bears for 59 and doubled up the Beavers 48-24. In all there were 6986 yards of offense and 645 points. The Oregon offense had a sudden and relentless beauty. When De’Anthony Thomas dashed to a 94-yard touchdown at the Fiesta Bowl in the first six seconds, the look of frozen horror on the face of Wildcat fans as he crossed the imaginary tape was the posterizer moment in an era of giddy success.
Defensive coordinators get teeth-grindingly unhappy, witnessing those kind of did-you-see-what-he-just-did outbursts of joy and exuberance. Marcus Mariota throwing for six touchdowns, Kenjon Barner romping for 321 yards, it sticks in their craw. They want to stop the Ducks, and with Barner graduated and Chip Kelly cashing big pay checks in the NFL, you can’t blame them if they think that now is their chance.
The denizens of defense in the pass-happy, offensive-minded PAC study overtime 12 months a year, and it’s a mortal cinch lock they’ll give extra study to what Stanford did in grounding the high-flying attack back in November, holding Mighty Oregon to 405 yards and 20 measley first downs in a 17-14 road victory. Barner found no lanes along the Cardinal line, held to 66 yards on 21 carries as Shane Skov and company filled every gap and had an answer for every trick and feint in the Oregon arsenal. The DC legion of doom will also borrow concepts from the NFL, noting how the Baltimore Ravens stymied San Francisco’s spread attack on four cracks inside the seven yard line, using run blitzes to confuse Colin Kaepernick and force him to throw quick, ineffectual passes to covered receivers instead of giving the ball inside to Frank Gore behind a mammoth offensive line. Coaches are idea whores and equal-opportunity pickpockets; they’ll steal anything that works.
In the endless chess game that is football, played with pieces that bruise and get tired and occasionally forget the snap count, it’s Mark Helfrich’s move. He has to figure out how to duplicate the success that opponents are feverishly trying to figure out, and he has to do it without his most powerful piece. Kenjon Barner and his 21 touchdowns and 1767 yards are no longer on the board.
With the running game a big question mark for 2013, speculation is rampant among Duck fans that the new Oregon coaching staff will open up the passing game. It would be anyway. Speculation is always rampant, particularly in February when there is no actual football.
Where will the yards and points come from in the Oregon attack this fall? Barner and James are gone, and with them the blur-fast tailback you could count on for 1700 and 25. Marcus Mariota and Thomas are dazzling, but with their slightish frames, you can’t think either could carry a workload double or three times what they took last year, and Byron Marshall seems capable but not brilliant after a freshman season in which he carried 87 times for 447 yards. Thomas Tyner has world-class speed and potential, but he hasn’t attended a practice yet.
For Helfrich’s offense to succeed as famously and flamboyant as Kelly’s, he’ll have to tweak the distribution of the football. He can’t merely do things in the same way, because the DCs are closing in on that, and this is a new team with a different skillset than the groups of 2009-2012. The 2013 team, as yet, lacks a dominant tailback but features a fast, accurate-throwing quarterback coming off one of the best freshman seasons in NCAA history.
With good health, open targets and ample opportunity, Marcus Mariota could ensure that this new era of Oregon football starts out even better than the last one. The Ducks will begin next season ranked in most preseason top fives, but to stay there they’ll have to unleash Version 2.0 of the offense, and that has to feature Colt Lyerla in a larger role.
In all their formulas and blueprints for stopping Oregon, no one accounts for the tight end, because the Ducks have never featured him. Lyerla’s had flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons, increasing his catches from 7 as a freshman to 25 as a sophomore, displaying good hands and tough running ability, breaking tackles and finding the end zone 11 times in his career.
At 6-5, 246 and still popping out more cords of fast-twitch muscle, Lyerla is an awesome football weapon the Ducks have largely left parked in the tunnel next to the Harley. He has the size and speed to be a matchup nightmare for both linebackers and strong safeties, and it usually takes four or five of them to bring him down. Provided he’s achieved the maturity to be consistent and stays healthy for a full season, his potential emergence opens up the Oregon offense by giving it new range and variety. Linebackers can’t crash the run because they have to account for him. Safeties can’t double cover Josh Huff, De’Anthony Thomas, B.J. Kelley or Bralon Addison because they can’t Lyerla roam free down the seam.
The best example of how the Ducks comically strong manchild could be used is Rob Gronkowski, now with the New England Patriots, a star inside receiver for the Arizona Wildcats in 2007 and 2008. In the Ducks wild 55-45 win over UA in ’08, 6-6, 260-lb. wildman Gronk went beastly, 12 catches, 143 yards and a touchdown. Lyerla isn’t as burly as the Patriot All-Pro, but he’s more athletic, able to leap a 65″ plyobox or dunk a basketball with either hand.
A featured, formidable tight end makes an offense a chain-moving nightmare, and it’s especially effective because the throws to use him are so simple. Mariota has terrific vision and touch. Incorporating a package of plays that make Lyerla one of the focal points of the offense, rather than an occasional twist, could be the X factor that makes the absence of Kelly, Barner and James something they stop talking about by game four. If Helfrich wants to tweak what Oregon does and make it work with Tim Gunn panache or Rob Gronkowski bare-shirted boldness, he has to get Lyerla the god damned ball.