Except for the NFL combine (more on that later this week), this is the time that football fans everywhere dread. It is truly the winter of our discontent. You've probably even stopped buying beer because what good is beer if there is no football game to watch?
Well, perhaps you don't feel quite that bad.
But there's hope. Guess what happens after winter? Spring! And even better, spring football practice!
The Oregon Ducks under new head coach Mark Helfrich will start spring practice Tuesday, April 2. It is not yet known if Helfrich will depart from his predecessor's policy of closing practices to the public. A schedule of spring practice dates has not been announced yet, but teams are allowed 15 practices.
What we do know is that the culminating spring game will be on April 27 at 11:00 a.m. PT and will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.
It will be interesting to see if the Duck fans can beat last year's announced attendance of 44,129. That number may seem gaudy to many of you who remember when no one even knew the Ducks played a spring game. But put this in your pipe and smoke it (except you, Cliff Harris and Darron Thomas): Alabama averages 86,000 fans at their annual spring game, called A-Day.
While you ponder that outrageous number, and until Oregon tells the world what its plans are regarding spring practice, here is a link to the Oregon State Beavers' spring practice dates. All Oregon State practices are held on the OSU campus and are open to the public. Hint, Hint.
What's different this year?
Well, a lot—most importantly, there will be one less visor on the field this year. As absolutely everyone on the planet knows by now, Chip Kelly has taken his talents to Philadelphia, and you will be watching him on Sunday—not Saturday—next fall.
The buzz on Mark Helfrich is mostly good, as he and his assistants nailed the 2013 recruiting class under trying circumstances. The spring game will be eagerly awaited, mostly to see how Helfrich handles his first "game."
In addition to a new head coach, the Ducks will debut new assistants and assistant coaches in different roles.
People I talk to are expecting new offensive coordinator Scott Frost to air it out a bit more than we've seen under Kelly. The spring game should give a hint as to whether the Ducks are still primarily a running team or if fans will see more balance in the 2013 offense.
Don't forget there is new construction happening on the north side of Autzen Stadium.
Officially called the "Autzen Stadium—North Side Exiting and Accessibility Improvements," the project is supposed to improve access to the stadium and enhance public safety. What that means, of course, is that it will be easier for Uncle Phil's helicopter to land there.
What to watch for on offense
Do you have some slightly nagging questions about the Ducks' offense in 2013? Thought so. Here are some things to be on the look out for in the spring game:
1. Who will be quarterback Marcus Mariota's backup? Jeff Lockie seems to have the inside track, but watch Jake Rodrigues and see how he moves on his leg. Recruit QB Damion Hobbs won't be in Eugene until fall camp starts.
2. How aggressive will sophomore running back Byron Marshall run the ball? Don't you imagine that Marshall is really sick of hearing about incoming freshman 5-star RB Thomas Tyner? Yes, Marshall shouldn't feel that he has anything to prove after his stellar freshman year in relief of Kenjon Barner, but I bet he does. Also, look for RB Ayele Ford in the mix.
3. Marcus Mariota probably won't play long, but watch to see how many throws he makes and to whom. It might give you some insight into run vs. throw balance.
4. Look for some of the redshirt freshmen to emerge. Guys like tight end Evan Baylis and wide receiver Chance Allen come to mind.
What to watch for on defense
1. Joe Walker: I know, we are way premature on this guy, but sometimes you just have a feeling about a player. Don't be surprised if Walker's very first play is a burst through the line straight at the QB. Expect him to fly around a lot, a la Kiko Alonso.
2. Watch for the twins. No, not the Robinsons—they won't be here until fall—the Amoako's, Eric and Stephen. They are the defensive backs from Arlington, Texas. Check how much playing time they get behind the starting DBs. You might want to also look for Oshay Dunmore at DB, the redshirt freshman from Newport, Ore.
What to watch for on special teams
1. Will Alejandro Maldonado get booed? No, Autzen Stadium fans do not boo their team—ever—under any circumstances. It's pathetic to boo a young man who is on your side.
2. Will Helfrich let De'Anthony Thomas return one kickoff? Please? Pretty please? Just to last us until fall?
Kay Jennings is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.