Mark Helfrich and the Oregon Ducks are known around college football for doing things differently, and their late start to spring practice is no different.
This year, the Oregon Ducks will begin spring football on April 2. While this date is undeniably late in comparison to many of the other college football programs around the nation, Oregon is spearheaded by the idea of attacking things with innovation. The extra rest for the players will keep them fresh and healthy when they take the field at Autzen Stadium for the spring game on April 27.
Each team is allotted only 15 spring practices, and Oregon certainly chooses a curious time to begin. Oregon will practice four days during the week for the first three weeks of April and will practice three times the final week before its spring game. This is very late compared to schools like Alabama or LSU. Alabama began practice on March 16. USC began practice on March 5. Even Stanford began practice as early as February 25.
Someone who may not be complaining about the late start to spring practice, however, is Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead.
While Armstead looks to gain a more impactful role for the Oregon football team next season, a berth into the Sweet 16 for the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament for the multi-sport athlete proves that spring football practice is likely the farthest thing from his mind.
“I’m going to stay with (the basketball team) until the season is over,” Armstead told The Register-Guard.
If Armstead and the Oregon Men’s Basketball team were to defeat Louisville in the Sweet 16 and win their Elite Eight matchup as well, they would advance to the Final Four. With that, Armstead would be forced to miss four of the fifteen already late workouts. Armstead, however, feels he is already quicker and more athletic than he was last season.
“I’m going to be ready,” Armstead told The Register-Guard, who will be working with a new defensive line coach (Ron Aiken) this spring. “I think basketball got me in good shape and I’ll be ready for spring ball.”
Helfrich has supported Armstead in his multisport endeavors, and has also supported multi-sport athlete De’Anthony Thomas (football, track and field). He will continue to support the Robinson twins (football, basketball) once when they arrive at the program as well.
New head coach Mark Helfrich also projects a bright future working with Aiken as the defensive line coach.
“Our staff is outstanding, these guys could be anywhere in the country almost and they chose to be here with us and with these players,” said Helfrich, in his opening presser. “I think that speaks volumes to what we are about.”
Aiken joins new wide receivers coach Matt Lubick as a fresh face on staff this spring, as well as joining Joe Bernardi (graduate assistant), Cha'pelle Brown (graduate assistant), Nate Costa (graduate assistant), Matt Noyer (football interim) and Carlos Polk (football interim) as well.
Each will be excited to have the familarity to grow more accustomed to their new job in Eugene.
Helfrich himself is the former offensive coordinator for the team and prides himself on a leadership campaign of continuity. If you can’t have Chip Kelly, Helfrich is a notably similar representation on the sidelines and will prove that during spring football.
“It’s going to be 99.2% very similar, but there is going to be that .2% where you’re going to go woah that’s totally different," continued Helfrich. "We’re about a process, we’re all about an end game, it’s all about the process and the players.”
The new coach, however, has already begun to differentiate himself as the new sheriff in Eugene.
For instance, spring practices may have a slightly different feel this year. Helfrich hinted that his practices would have more “unscripted scenarios” and offensive improvisation from the mind of new coordinator Scott Frost. Frost would assume the role of the primary play caller during spring practice.
“Spring football, it’s the best time of the year,” Helfrich told The Register-Guard. “You can prepare, you can see guys grow up and there’s no wins or losses…the spring is great—coaches can experiment, players can experiment.”
The experimentation may come at just the right moment for junior college linebacker Joe Walker, who will be the only 2013 signee on hand for practices, as no high schoolers decided to commit to early enrollment. Walker looks to fill the vacated roles of Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso.
Walker has received raving reviews from those who have seen him play and could be a viable starter after enjoying the extra transition from junior college in Los Angeles.
The late start will also be helpful for players such as injured offensive lineman Mana Greig or defensive back Avery Patterson, who is recovering from a season-ending injury from last year.
The delayed beginning could also be helpful to the new offensive line, which is young and relatively ill-experienced.
“The good news is,” writes Rob Moseley in a preview piece for the offensive line on The Register-Guard, “there's a trio of returning starters and all-conference candidates, in Grasu, Johnstone and Fisher.”
However, the additional space to workout will be good for Brandon Teague, who is switching from tight end to offensive line. Kyle Long, Carson York, Nick Cody and Ryan Clanton will all need serviceable full-time replacements in their absence, and by waiting longer to begin spring practice, the team will have a more clear idea of who the best candidates will be.
Everett Beynard and Hamani Stevens emerge as the early leading candidates for increased exposure.
Also on offense: Next year, the team will require a bigger role from running backs Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas. They will benefit from the additional to conditioning in the absence of Kenjon Barner next fall. Thomas is currently running track and could use the extra conditioning for football season rather than rushing into the new role during his track season.
And on defense, Oregon could also use the oppportunity to determine who will replace future first-rounder Dion Jordan.
The next man up on the depth chart would likely be game regular Tony Washington or Sam Kamp, who would both need to prove themselves as viable options. Otherwise, standout incoming freshman Torrodney Prevot, who flipped his recruitment from USC to Oregon on national signing day, may take the job instead. The later spring practice date can help solidify their roles.
Spring practice also arrives not a moment too soon for tight end standout Colt Lyerla, who will be happy to find his way back to the football field following his recent controversy on Twitter.
One storyline that remains prevalent this spring is the possibility of these practices being open to the public. Around this time last year, former coach Chip Kelly announced that spring practice would be closed to the public, but his absence may prove to be a change of pace for the team.
“So many of those things are out of our control,” said Helfrich, who plans to announce some form of a decision on opening practice to the public by either March 29 or April 1. “It’s a safety thing on some level, but we’ll cross that bridge.”
When it comes to the Oregon Ducks football program, however, one thing is certain: The program may do things differently, but the team looks ready and prepared for another phenomenal season.