Mark Helfrich's 5 Biggest Challenges for Oregon in 2013
Each season of football typically offers up something new and exciting for fans to look forward to, whether it's new talent, new opponents or simply high expectations and the hope of winning a national championship.
Not a single one of those three items will catch Oregon fans by surprise as the team has been competing at an elite level for several years now. But one major difference will be the man in charge, Mark Helfrich.
If you've been rooting on the Ducks on since the late '70s, Helfrich will be just the fourth head coach you've seen in that time.
He replaces the departed offensive genius Chip Kelly and will face enormous expectations. But he inherits a team poised to once again capture a league title and compete for a national championship.
This isn't a rebuilding job by any stretch of the imagination, and the right pieces are in place. But while other new coaches like Sonny Dykes at Cal may be facing more X-and-O type issues, Helfrich will have some major challenges of his own to overcome.
Let's take a look at the top five challenges that Mark Helfrich and Oregon will face in 2013.
5. Discovering Young Talent to Fill Future Needs
With Chip Kelly gone, there are many who will doubt whether Oregon can sustain success for more than a year or two. Yes, the team will be good in 2013. But what about when Mariota leaves? Will the Ducks continue to capture the magic that has led to so many wins?
Much of the answer to that question will be revealed in 2013, when young guys get their chance to show what they can bring to the table. Last season, it was players like Bralon Addison on offense and Erick Dargan on defense who showed that they have the kind of talent it takes to keep the team among the nation's elite.
But here's a scary thought: aside from the graduating seniors, Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell, De'Anthony Thomas and Colt Lyerla will all be eligible to enter the 2014 NFL draft. And the question isn't if they will be drafted, but in what round, because they all have professional talent. This excludes the offensive linemen as well, several of whom may just take a peek at the next level too.
I would be surprised if all of these guys leave, but following the 2013 season there will likely be an exodus of talent the likes of which Oregon hasn't had to deal with in quite some time. It's absolutely crucial that young players step up and prove themselves to be capable of taking over in 2014.
I'm looking at players like tight end Pharoah Brown and safety Reggie Daniels to make an impact and get fans excited about their futures.
Everybody wants to win now, and Oregon has all the talent in the world to do just that. But in order to win now and continue to win later, Helfrich must develop the young talent this season and have several currently-unknown players ready to roll in 2014.
4. Maintaining Team Mindset of "Win the Day"
For all the innovation and high-speed offensive tactics that Chip Kelly introduced to the Ducks, his most important contribution was without a doubt his ability to get the team ready each week despite the opponent wanting nothing more than to knock Oregon off its perch.
In short, "win the day."
Technique can only get you so far, but preparation and mindset can truly separate the contenders from the pretenders. In Kelly's tenure, the Ducks showed up every week ready to play. That may not sound terribly exciting, but it's rare.
One might argue that Oregon failed to show up against Stanford this past season, but let's give credit to the Cardinal who arrived in Autzen and simply beat the Ducks. Oregon played far from its best game, but it's hard to point at preparation as a reason for the loss.
If you're any other team in the conference from 2009-2012, you've been beaten by the Ducks and a win against Oregon would make your season. The Ducks are the biggest game on the schedule for nearly every team they face. Nobody is going to get caught napping when they face Oregon.
Which makes it all the more important to maintain focus throughout the season because if the Ducks sleepwalk through even one conference game (unless it's Colorado, sorry Buffs), it could mean a surprising and humiliating loss.
One of Mark Helfrich's biggest challenges is to make sure his squad prepares each week like it's been doing the past few years.
3. Managing More Responsibilities
Last season, Mark Helfrich was the offensive coordinator for one of the nation's most prolific units. He worked with the quarterbacks and helped out on the recruiting trail as well.
Since becoming head coach, his responsibilities have multiplied. Not only must Helfrich make sure the offense is up to speed and ready to go for the start of the season, he'll have to make executive decisions in recruiting, keep an eye on the defense and be the face of the program.
If you were grading his first few months, despite a lack of fireworks good or bad, you'd probably hand Helfrich a nice, shiny "A". Recruiting is off to a decent start, off-the-field troubles have been nonexistent and spring practice appeared to be relatively smooth and productive.
But the only grade fans will care about is the one he earns from August through January. Or the one he earns for recruiting as a whole.
There's no reason to believe that Helfrich can't handle more on his plate, but head coach is a different animal than offensive coordinator and the challenge never stops. Recruiting is a major priority over the next two-and-a-half months, as is staying connected with the players and coaches.
It's more than a full-time job, it's a lifestyle that Helfrich now has. All signs point toward success thus far, but managing the numerous responsibilities of a head coach is one of Helfrich's biggest challenges in 2013.
2. Establishing Consistent Rushing Attack
Everybody wants to talk about the passing game with the promotion of former WR coach Scott Frost to offensive coordinator, the hiring of new WR coach Matt Lubick, the maturation of QB Marcus Mariota and the bevy of experienced talent at the position. So, uhh, what's the issue there?
The passing attack will be just fine, but the running back spot, while full of talent, is a much bigger challenge to address. Even if the Ducks air it out more, they must continue to run the ball well in order for the offense to be successful.
When Oregon is getting chunks of 5, 10 and 15 yards on the ground, it is unstoppable. But with the graduation of Kenjon Barner, it will be without an established back for the first time since 2009, when LeGarrette Blount was suspended following the opening game of the season.
It's safe to assume that De'Anthony Thomas can contribute from the position, and Byron Marshall looks poised to step in and continue the legacy of great backs. Incoming freshman Thomas Tyner has the kind of talent to make an immediate impact as well.
Still, nothing is certain, as was the case the past few offseasons when LaMichael James and/or Kenjon Barner were returning.
Helfrich's biggest X-and-O, on-the-field challenge will undoubtedly be establishing a consistent rushing attack up to par (or close) with that of last season's.
1. Dealing with Chip Kelly Comparisons
You're probably guilty of it already. Most fans are. Most media are as well. I know I am right now.
But comparisons of Mark Helfrich to former coach Chip Kelly won't end anytime soon, and they are easily the biggest challenges the new man in charge must face in 2013.
If recruiting takes a hit, Helfrich will be compared to Chip Kelly. If the offense has midseason struggles? Well, obviously Kelly would have things figured out. If Mariota takes a step back, well clearly the blame is on Helfrich and how he isn't handling his QB like Kelly would have.
Fair or unfair, those are the kind of issues Helfrich faces, and while it may be easy for him to say that comparisons won't bother him or his team, they are going to be everywhere. In everything Helfrich does and in every decision he makes (including whether to go for it on fourth down), people will wonder how Chip Kelly would have done it.
The easy to solution is for the Ducks to simply win all their games. Undefeated is undefeated regardless of how you get there. And given the easy slate of opponents to open up the season, any real criticism may be a ways off.
But comparing the former offensive coordinator to his old boss is going to be a popular angle whether you like it, and it's a challenge Helfrich must face head on in 2013.