Oregon Football: Mark Helfrich's 4 Biggest Worries Heading into Spring Practice
Ah, spring. The birds are chirping, the sun makes a brief appearance and the footballs start flying again. Spring football practice is almost here for the Oregon Ducks—it starts April 2—and this year will see a new skipper at the helm, head coach Mark Helfrich.
Having achieved his dream job, what could Helfrich possibly be worrying about? Besides the fact that anything less than a 12-0 record will be seen as a disappointing season—c'mon, folks, how is that fair?!—you have to imagine that there are a few things on Helfrich's mind.
Here's what he is probably worrying about in this interim period between the recruiting frenzy and the kickoff of spring practice.
He's Not Chip Kelly
Mark Helfrich is not Chip Kelly. Not many people are.
Kelly's personality is almost larger than life, and he inspires tremendous loyalty from his players. And, early on in his reign (LeGarrette Blount, Jeremiah Masoli), Kelly established the rules by which you must abide if you want to be on the Oregon football team.
Helfrich will need to assert himself in the spring. He seems almost too nice for the players to fear him. Kelly could cut you down with a word and a sarcastic snarl. I'm not sure Helfrich has a snarl anywhere within him. He needs to prove he's in charge now; he's the man.
It's been so wonderful to wake up and not have to read about the Ducks getting into any off-field trouble. Helfrich needs to make sure that he instills that same discipline and responsibility in the kids who haven't experienced that fearful stare from Kelly.
If I were 18 years old, I would be afraid of Chip Kelly; I'm not sure I would be as afraid of Mark Helfrich. Maybe that's a good thing, but maybe it's not.
Offensive Line Turnover
Kyle Long, gone. Ryan Clanton, gone. Nick Cody, gone. Carson York, gone.
That's some big—literally—shoes to fill. While the Ducks have experience on the offensive line and some quality returning players like Hroniss Grasu, Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher, there will be some inexperienced O-line guys this fall.
The underclassmen will likely step up now that it's their turn in the saddle. Plus, the 2013 recruiting class has a gaggle of offensive linemen, a couple of whom could see some playing time before the season is done, particularly Evan Voeller and Cameron Hunt.
But it's not hard to imagine Mark Helfrich closing his eyes at bedtime and seeing some huge Stanford Cardinal defensive end charging hard on the left side directly toward the franchise, aka Marcus Mariota.
Personally, I would worry less if Kyle Long were still there protecting his dude.
Ducks running back Byron Marshall showed steady, hard running and flashes of brilliance last year as a true freshman.
Thomas Tyner has higher expectations on his rookie shoulders than the next pope.
De'Anthony Thomas will do what De'Anthony Thomas does—dazzle every single time he touches the ball.
Fans like to believe that it is truly "next guy up" day in, day out, year in, year out. Chip said it, so it must be true, right? But it's not always true, and it doesn't always work that way in real life. Yes, the Ducks replaced all-world LaMichael James with the almost-all-world Kenjon Barner. Easy peasy.
But is Helfrich positive that Marshall is as unstoppable as James and Barner were? Did he get enough carries as a freshman to learn the system and the Pac-12 Conference competition? Will Tyner hold up under the beating at the college level? Will his hamstring?
It's very difficult to take away guys like James and Barner and not feel their absence. Helfrich might be worried about this just a little.
The Ducks welcome two new assistant coaches into the Oregon family with the additions of Ron Aiken and Matt Lubick.
Aiken takes over the defensive line coaching duties, replacing Jerry Azzinaro, who followed Chip Kelly to the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. Aiken is a highly respected D-line coach who most recently spent six years with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals after eight years with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Lubick was added as passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He replaces Scott Frost at the position, as Frost moves up to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Lubick has most recently been at Duke University in a similar capacity.
Both new coaches are good hires for Helfrich. But anytime you change even one ingredient in the recipe, the dish could turn out differently. Aiken and Lubick appear to be guys who will be a comfortable fit with the Oregon coaching roster, but you can't be sure until they get on-the-job tested.
And there are intangibles with the existing assistant coaches that we as fans aren't privy to. Does Nick Aliotti aspire to be a head coach and was he ticked when Helfrich got the job? Did Steve Greatwood or Gary Campbell think he should have been named offensive coordinator instead of Scott Frost?
The Ducks have essentially a new management structure. Helfrich has to hope the new pieces fit into the overall puzzle.
You just inherited one of the top five coaching gigs in America, Mr. Helfrich. You have returning players other coaches would lie, steal and beg for. You even have a first-year schedule that sizes up nicely for your team.
Get some sleep. Don't worry.
Kay Jennings is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.