At Boise State the new slogan is “Attack the Future” and at Oregon the new evolution of the key thought is “You versus yesterday,” the idea being that every one of the coaches and players should be striving every day to be a little better than the day before.
Mark Helfrich told the media today after the first workout of spring practice, “We’re the biggest, the fastest and the strongest we’ve ever been. Now we have to turn that into functional football skill.”
Not only that, but Oregon is picked by the Las Vegas oddsmakers as the second favorite to win the national title. ESPN’s Brock Huard and others have identified Marcus Mariota as the number one pick in next year’s NFL draft.
The new slogan could have easily been “you versus expectations,” but that isn’t as inspiring or integrated an idea. Whatever the mantra, it will be heard a thousand times by October, and the fortunes of the Oregon team will be determined by the work and attention they put in over a long five months of preparation and a long season.
Oregon is the cool school now. At the Atlanta NFTC combine Jerry Hamilton of ESPN asked some of the most sought-after recruits in SEC country what school their friends asked them about, what school outside their area they’d most like to be recruited by or visit, and five of the eight, including 5-star all-purpose back Taj Griffin of Georgia, named Oregon. The uniforms, the fast-paced entertaining offense and the sustained success has made the Ducks a national power and a national brand.
This is the season to capitalize on all that. Mark Helfrich’s second-ever squad has talent, leadership, depth and reputation. They have never had a better chance to win it all. With a veteran offensive line, the nation’s best quarterback and a loaded offense, they could be champions, provided the defense comes together like fans hope. A defense anchored by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Derrick Malone, Tony Washington and DeForest Buckner has way more promise than the skeptics give them credit for, particularly if players like T.J. Daniel and Sam Kamp capitalize on some hard-earned winter strength gains and develop into tough, physical football players, productive in the middle of Oregon’s defensive line.
The incoming class is loaded with mature-beyond-their-years leaders. There are six or seven players in the group that could step in immediately and help raise the talent level, execution and focus of the 2014 team, and the entire group will help ratchet up the discipline and competitive intensity of practice. Defensive linemen Jalen Jelks told me yesterday, in an interview I did with him for Duck Sports Authority, “Right now, I know that they DON’T want me to redshirt, they want me to come in and try to do whatever I can to get some playing time. I’m not even trying to come in to try and steal somebody’s spot but I am, at the same time. I’m trying to be a jerk about but I’m trying to come in and play. I’m going to work hard and try to compete for that position. Any position I can get, I’ll try to take. I don’t care if it’s special teams, defense, anywhere they can put me I’ll be perfectly happy with it.”
“My first year I want to come in strong. I want to come in with my foot in the door and just come on the field running. I want to come on the field prepared and hopefully it translates. It should.”
The attitude of coming in immediately to compete will only help Jelks and his classmates, and it will also help the players in front of them get better. Mark Helfrich said recently that one of his goals for spring was for the coaching staff to do quality control on every phase of what they do as a team, from himself on down.
Going into spring, there seems to be a renewed commitment to doing things better and getting more out of every practice, every day in the countdown of the season opener with South Dakota and the Week Two showdown against Michigan State.
The scoreboard and the standings will be the ultimate measure of whether the new slogan and the second-year head coach have improved their effectiveness. For fans, there is a lot to be excited and optimistic about, beginning with a junior quarterback who is now completely comfortable in the leadership role and sure of what he is doing.