It's only days into his first fall camp as Oregon head coach, and Mark Helfrich already has identified his most unrelenting concern.
“I’ve never been a big whistle guy, and now I need one,” Helfrich said.
At only 39, Helfrich has just been handed the keys to the college football equivalent of a Ferrari, and yet, it’s this insignificant accoutrement that has him bothered between joyrides.
His other major burden? Navigating the Ducks’ shimmering new $68 million football performance center.
You’ve undoubtedly seen the pictures. The locker room, the Brazilian hardwood floors, the movie theaters—stressing the plural—and the barbershop are a few of the notable amenities in Oregon’s new football space station.
As the players and coaches discover the ins and outs of the most extraordinary football facility ever constructed, Helfrich’s favorite part of the upgrade gets back to the original intent of the changes.
No, not the hot tub, or the weight room that’s the size of most college dorms, or the flat screens mounted around every corner, rather, some newfound space and flexibility with the practice fields.
Yes, practice fields.
But the response signifies a comfort, something that has been building since his childhood days of Duck fandom—he grew up only two hours from Eugene, and his father and uncle played at the school—up through his four seasons working under Chip Kelly as the Oregon offensive coordinator.
“I’ve been 100 percent in lockstep with our culture and philosophy for a long time, so there are really no drastic changes,” Helfrich said of his new influence on the program. “We’re just tweaking the margins.”
Not many teams have the luxury to focus on the margins, although Oregon is a different kind of machine. Even while replacing one of the most successful and creative college coaches of the past decade, there’s no panic and no worry—just optimism in a much bigger, brighter building.
Helping this transition further is a staff that returns eight of 10 assistants and a strength coach who has been at the school for more than 25 years.
But if you thought a state-of-the-art football palace and familiar faces on the staff were the most impressive goodies in the welcome basket, think again. That honor goes to quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose ceiling remains unseen.
Mariota burst onto the scene by accounting for 38 touchdowns and only six interceptions in his first season as starter, looking comfortable out of the gate.
“His physical attributes are special,” Helfrich said. “He has a great release, plenty of arm strength, he’s deceptively fast and our guys love to play for him. Marcus is special because he has tremendous ability, but he also has a greater desire to be special.”
Still, Helfrich has made it a point to push his potential Heisman QB to be better. The focus hasn’t been on his mechanics or familiarity with the offense, but rather on his role as the team’s leader.
These are good problems to have—the margins—the ones other teams would line up to deal with.
“He’s a naturally humble guy, almost to a fault,” Helfrich said. “We worked with him a lot in the spring on being more assertive, but we want him to assert himself so it’s natural.”
Assisting Mariota in this potent offensive attack is running back/wide receiver/video-game-cheat-code De’Anthony Thomas. With the departure of running back Kenjon Barner, Thomas is expected to acquire more of a workload in 2013.
Where these touches come from is still a work in progress. If finding your way around your new football facility is the world’s best problem to have, perhaps this is a close second.
Helfrich will determine that role, and he also has the more daunting task of ensuring that an offense—one that averaged more than 47 points per game over the past three seasons—doesn’t skip a beat.
More than just talent in place, the identity of Oregon has long been the feverish pace at which this team operates. And while Kelly is off to torture NFL defensive coordinators with his marvelous mad-scientist routine, don’t expect a sudden shift in tempo.
Although Kelly served as the team’s play-caller, Helfrich had significant influence on the offense and the pace at which it moved. Translation: Plan your bathroom and refrigerator runs wisely, and don’t blink.
“We’re trying to get faster,” Helfrich said on the up-tempo offense. “It’s not just a fad. It’s something we believe in wholeheartedly from top to bottom in our program.”
Oregon will certainly be fast, as anticipated, but will it keep up it’s incredible pace of winning? Surrounded by talent and unthinkable resources, expectations are soaring. The Ducks enter the season as the No. 3 team in the coaches poll, and they will likely be favored in every game.
It’s not something Helfrich shies away from, however. In fact, this favorable position is something he helped shape and create over the past four years.
“You want to be in a place with high expectations,” Helfrich said. “This is not a place where you can show up, win six games and they build a statue. The biggest thing is our guys believe in the culture and values, and that’s really all that matters.”
Helfrich hopes his familiarity, creativity and comfort translate into a monstrous debut season, and there’s little early on that says that won't occur.
Well, as long as he can remember his whistle.
Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.