All great stories begin with a problem or a journey. In the movie Moneyball Brad Pitt and his minions set out to build a Jason Giambi out of spare parts.
They take a chubby outfielder, a washed up superstar and a smartmouthed little brother, somehow fashion 40 homeruns and 120 rbis for a measley couple of million dollars, challenging the then-mighty Yankees for supremacy of baseball. And Brad Pitt doesn’t even get the girl.
The Moneyball analogy comes up a lot with the Ducks, because under Chip Kelly, they were able to identify efficiencies in execution and preparation that added up to an insurmountable advantage.
photo right: Marcus Mariota can roam Manziel-like down the field with the football cradled like a loaf of bread, but he prefers a freaky fast Jimmy John’s delivery to a wide-open receiver (Bruce Schwartzman, AP photo).
Using two, three, and four-star players, Oregon ascended to a national championship game, finishing in the Top Ten for four straight years. The Ducks ran six plays a minute in practice, then went for it on fourth down, went for two in the first quarter, rotated 24 players on defense, ran fake punts and onside kicks, passed when conventional strategy said to run and ran when conventional strategy said to pass. They won 81% of their games, by an average score of 49.6-21.6, blitzing through the PAC-12 like the Heer and Luftwaffe through Poland.
With Chip Kelly gone, the Ducks have a new problem and a new journey. They have to prove they can replace his genius with collaboration, create their own set of efficiencies and innovations.
Mark Helfrich moved quickly to hire two veteran assistant coaches to complement a tenured and accomplished staff. The new Duck braintrust scurried into action on the recruiting trail, aggressively offering and visiting players at a pace that’s far ahead of schedule. Just this week they’ve made four new offers, to top players like John “Juju” Smith, a slick multidimensional athlete from football powerhouse Long Beach Polytechnic. Juju would bring some serious mojo to the Ducks offense in 2014.
At the same time, somewhere in a secret lab in the bowels of Autzen stadium, Helfrich, Scott Frost and Matt Lubick are working feverishly, sneaking into the anatomy department in the dead of night to sift through jars of brains, striving to stitch together a Jeff Maehl out of spare parts.
Not really. But a critical component to the Ducks success in this new era is finding new ways to produce the points and yards, their own way around the restrictor plates of 60 minutes in a football game and three tries for a first down. For the first time in five seasons they’ll have to do it not only without their genius coach, but also without a big producer at tailback.
With Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James gone, the Webfoots have to rely on other assets. Experts now say that Stanford has become the team to beat in the conference. Fresh off their first trip to the Rose Bowl in eons, with a favorable schedule, an established coach in David Shaw and 15 starters returning from a hard-hitting 12-2 powerhouse, it’s hard to argue that the new-look Ducks have many advantages. The Cardinal are threatening to become the new Yankees in PAC-12 football.
Helfrich and company have to reload the Oregon offense around their two chief remaining weapons, De’Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota. They have to duplicate the fast, sleek, productive offensive machines of the Chip Kelly era, just in a different way.
New offensive coordinator Scott Frost remains passionately optimistic that the midnight sessions in the secret lab can produce a new winning formula. Just last week he spoke to ESPN’s Ted Miller about the 2013 team and their fleet Samoan quarterback:
I think we can clean some things up and be even more efficient. There are some things we want to tweak to help him have more of an opportunity to impact the game. We wouldn’t trade him for anybody. We think he can do some amazing things and win a lot of games. We’re going to feature him as much as we can.
It’s clear Mariota’s the star on this team, and he should be. Super Mario can do everything Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel does on the football field, but he does it with cool efficiency rather than backyard improvisation. Mariota’s accurate and smart. He makes good decisions, only a few mistakes and rarely repeats one.
For the new season Helfrich has already given Mariota a simple, forceful directive. He told Steve Greenberg of the Sporting News he wants Mariota to “come out of your shell. Be confident in everything you do.”
Provided the Ducks’ 2013 season isn’t nuked by the NCAA or the North Koreans, the Mariota strategy has an excellent chance of working. There’s a reason Kelly and Helfrich chose him in 2010 over Manziel. Helfrich recently joked that they chose the “taller, faster, better-looking guy.” All true, but more significantly, Mariota has better arm strength and discipline. Manziel’s tendency to wing it and make stuff up on the fly might not play as well in year two, with a tougher schedule and a weaker supporting cast.
If they stay healthy, both quarterbacks could be wearing suits in December, live from New York on a Saturday night.
For Mariota, success depends first on staying healthy. To improve his odds in that area he’ll have to learn to slide better, get down or out of bounds and limit his contact. No more awkward head-first dives. Use his speed to get the most out of a play and then dart out of bounds, the way Dennis Dixon did so artfully in his senior season.
In his year two Super Mario has to accept the challenge to not merely be a cog in the offense but the commander of it. He has to dictate the game and distribute the ball. It would help immensely if a couple of his promising wide receivers assert themselves this off season, transforming into the big-money target Maehl became in 2010, turning in 77 catches, 1076 yards, and a school record 12 touchdowns.
Duck fans have a lot of confidence in Josh Huff, now a fourth-year senior who passed up a chance to leave for the NFL draft. Huff’s displayed big-play ability all through his Oregon career, but has had some trouble with consistency and has been nagged by injuries. He led the team last year in receiving yards with 493 while scoring 7 touchdowns, coming on in the latter half of the season with big games against USC and Cal. Huff nabbed 6 passes for 125 yards and two scores versus the Trojans, following it up the very next week with 5 catches for 109 yards and 3 tds against the Bears. In the two-week span he averaged over 21 yards a catch.
In all Huff had a solid year, flashing the potential to be the receiver opponents have to game plan for, something the Ducks haven’t had since Maehl but used to feature regularly. There have been 8 1000-yard receivers at Oregon, but only one, Maehl, in the spread offense era.
Huff’s big challenge is to find consistency. He’s a hard worker and a devastating blocker at UO, but for all the good things he did in 2012, he dropped a sure touchdown pass in the Fiesta Bowl. He improved his hands as a junior but again missed three games with the injury bug. He has to show he can produce at his top level game after game as a senior, make the leap from solid contributor to leader and star.
If it isn’t Huff, the receiver corps is loaded with intriguing prospects. Keanon Lowe has the sleek athleticism of his namesake, Keanan Howry. Dwayne Stanford has the long lean body and agility of Lavasier Tuinei. B.J. Kelly is smooth and fast, much like Demetrius Williams. Youngsters Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Chance Allen have tantalizing athletic ability and upside. De’Anthony Thomas is sudden and elusive, but must become a better route runner to become a top receiver, and the Ducks also need him to carry part of the load in the running game. Tight end Colt Lyerla could blossom as a junior, boosting his NFL stock by developing into the prime target for his gifted, smart quarterback.
But the most intriguing might be sophomore Bralon Addison. The 5-10, 189 former quarterback from Missouri City, Texas impressed all year with his steady play as a freshman, turning in three catches for touchdowns, including a 55-yard strike against Arizona. Though used sparingly he continued to improve, becoming the Ducks punt returner by the end of the year.
What impressed most about Addison was his poise and coolness under the pressure. Back to receive two fluttering, twisting punts in the Fiesta Bowl, both times he was bumped into as the punt arrived but handled the ball cleanly when a turnover could have been costly.
The great receivers in Oregon history, McClemore, Maehl and Howry and their like, all had this concentration and knack for the clutch grab under pressure.
To win his Heisman and his national championship, Mariota needs to develop that kind of confidence in one or two of his targets. The Ducks have been highly productive with a committee of receivers, but to win the big prize, they need the passing game to leap forward to a new level, especially in a season where there’s some question in the running attack.
They’ll go as far as Mariota’s arm will carry them, and it helps immeasurably if someone emerges in a big way at wideout. It keeps opponents from loading up on the run. The Ducks will face more aggressive run blitzes this year, and being able to defeat single coverage on the outside is the surest way to destroy that strategy.