The blue collar thing will wear thin after a while. Hard to sell a blue collar mentality when you’re practicing out of a $69 million building with Italian marble floors and Ferrari leather seats, but it’s good that the Ducks are reminding themselves, after two days of what Mark Helfrich called “pretend football” (the first two days in NCAA-mandated shorts and helmets, with no contact) that the season is a long grind that requires consistency of effort and preparation.
It’s good also that they’ve learned to have a little fun also. Rob Moseley had a great story today about how Marcus Mariota and Jeff Lockie have become friends. Mariota hosted his backup quarterback in Hawaii this summer, Moseley wrote, and the two bonded studying the playbook together and playing video games. Lockie is one of the few people that openly needles MM, razzing him about his bad golf game and island laid-back attitude.
That’s good. They’ll keep each other loose, and the interaction between them keeps Lockie in the game mentally. They prepare for opponents as two sets of eyes, and even if it’s for a snap or two when a chinstrap comes loose, the Ducks need the redshirt sophomore to be ready. And Mariota needs an outlet, a way to get away from the microphones and the pressure of being the center of attention and expectation.
Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News is an AP voter, one who usually rates the Ducks a little lower than average. He has them 6th in his preseason ballot. On his blog he wrote, “Marcus Mariota one of the top-three players at the most important position, and the Ducks miss both USC and ASU. But Oregon must get bigger and tougher to beat Stanford and run the table.”
To run the table, the Ducks have to do four things:
1. Keep Mariota healthy.
He worked on sliding techniques with the Oregon baseball coaches, something that should help him execute the scrambles and open-field runs a little more gracefully. As a third-year starter he progresses through his reads more smoothly and he’s improved his footwork in the pocket. The Ducks return 108 starts on the offensive line and a full second unit of guys who have played significant snaps. JC transfer Haniteli Lousi adds some beef and agility at guard, while Cameron Hunt and Hamani Stevens, the returning starters there, should benefit from a year of experience. Stevens is Oregon’s strongest linemen and Hunt one of the most talented athletically.
2. Rely on the running game
Oregon returns what could be the nation’s best backfield tandem in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, and Royce Freeman already looks like the freshman most ready to contribute. Position coach Gary Campbell told Tyson Alger of the Oregonian yesterday, “He’s at the point where Tyner was at the end of last year. He’s fast. He’s big and he’s tough. A lot of times you get guys like him that come in and have great success in high school and they haven’t really had to work at it and when they get into tough competition at the college level they shy away from it.”
“I’m probably going to want him on the field this fall,” Campbell said. “He helps make (that choice) by what he does on the practice field.”
Having a three-headed monster at tailback frees the Ducks up to use them in creative ways. All three have good hands out of the backfield, and all three are tough to bring down. Tyner is bigger, stronger and more comfortable in year two, much surer and more assertive, better acclimated to Oregon’s practice pace. In another story he told Alger, “Last year I was just thinking too much. Now I’m going out there and running the plays and not having to think.”
3. Have a battling attitude on defense
Oregon is built to outscore people. That’s their identify and their M.O., and that isn’t likely to change. They’ll will never be a Big Ten-style team that grinds it out, eats the clock and punts for field position. The defense’s job has always been to force a few mistakes and gain extra possessions, turn the ball around the other way with athletic ability, speed and hustle. They are going to lose ground sometimes. They have to be be tenacious, resilient, and keep attacking. That’s their job, to pave the way for the surge. The Ducks aren’t built to win games 14-10, and that’s part of the design. Ebrace it, and keep attacking the ball.
4. Remember to have fun
They’ll be asked over and over about the Stanford Problem and the Playoffs and the national title race and the Heisman and whether Helfrich can replace Kelly. They’ll be asked to rehash what happened last year and what it means to play for Nike University. In the last four seasons they’ve lost in the 11th game of the year, each time derailing big dreams. And part of the reason for those losses is that they got a little tense, a little caught up in the grind of being in the Top Five and the pressure to win every week. It’s a game. They have to have loyalty to each other, and the closeness that sustains them in all that scrutiny.
At some point during the season Helfrich should call practice off and take them to the water park. Just once, when the grind is beginning to wear.