Oregon Football: 5 Things We Learned About Mark Helfrich in Week 1
We spent much of the college football offseason speculating about what changes head coach Mark Helfrich might bring to the Oregon Ducks, specifically on offense.
After a 66-3 Oregon blowout of lowly Nicholls State in the season opener, the jury remains out on Helfrich. Upcoming games against Virginia and Tennessee should shed light on what kind of head coach he'll be and the Pac-12 slate will quickly fill out the rest of the puzzle.
But while a victory over an FCS opponent in Week 1 didn't necessarily show us how Helfrich might differ from former coach Chip Kelly in his philosophies, it did teach us a few things about the team's new head coach.
Here are five things we have learned about Helfrich so far.
Every-Down Back Means Every-Down Back
Many wondered, myself included, if the label of “every-down back” could ever apply to a smaller player like De’Anthony Thomas.
Turns out, Mark Helfrich plans on using De’Anthony as he would any other starting running back and he isn’t afraid to send him into the heart of the defense time and again. Thomas, surprisingly to some, has the toughness to handle the workload as well.
Whether this is a departure from Chip Kelly’s mentality is something we can’t say for sure because Kelly had the luxury of sending out either LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner every season during his tenure as head coach.
But it’s clear that Helfrich wants De’Anthony to be a guy who can handle 15-20 carries a game because with his talent, you have to figure that at least a few of those are going to wind up as long runs if not touchdowns.
Aggressiveness Won't Change in the Slightest
This falls into the category of: Things that we hoped wouldn’t change, but still wanted to see in a real game.
The question about whether Mark Helfrich will stay aggressive was answered with a resounding yes against Nicholls State. He went for it three times on fourth down and wasn’t afraid to let both backup quarterbacks throw a few passes when they got the call in the fourth quarter.
Oregon's hurry-up offense seemed to be dialed down a bit, but that could be the case for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that it was the first game for the Ducks, who were still jelling with the coaching staff.
The second reason is that with so many other teams speeding up their tempo this season, Oregon’s offense may not stick out quite as much, except for, ya know, all the scoring.
Either way, fans can rest assured that Helfrich won’t drastically change the risk-taking nature of the Ducks' offense that they’ve come to know and love over the past few years.
Fourth-Down Play-Calling Needs Tinkering
Mark Helfrich seemed to take a play straight out of the Chip Kelly playbook when it came to his philosophy on play-calling on fourth down.
Aside from a few issues such as Marcus Mariota looking a little rusty out of the gate and the linebackers showing they have talent but clearly need some more time to develop, the fourth-down play-calling may have been the biggest concern to take away from the opener.
As we saw last year against Stanford, Oregon’s entire mentality on fourth down seems to be hurry up to the line as fast as possible and get off a play. The problem is that 95 percent of the time, that play is a handoff straight up the middle.
If the defense happens to be prepared, it knows what’s coming and can stop it, as we saw Nicholls State do on a couple of occasions. Against Stanford last season, that issue was magnified even more for Oregon.
Typically, the Ducks have success because they either catch opponents off guard or have little problem with getting a push and gaining a yard or two. But it isn’t so easy on 4th-and-4 or longer.
What I’d like to see is more creativity here. Going back to last year’s game at USC, there was a fourth-down play in the third quarter that was executed brilliantly. Oregon hustled up to the line, snapped the ball and Mariota stuck the ball out for his back like any other read option.
He then pulled it back and made a step as if he was going to run with it. Seeing a linebacker, Mariota simply threw it to Daryle Hawkins near the sideline where he had a blocker in front of him and easily gained the yardage needed.
Hopefully,, Helfrich will get a little more creative with his play-calling on fourth down as this season progresses.
One of the things that became apparent in Saturday's game against Nicholls State was that Oregon is going to take more shots downfield throughout this season.
Chip Kelly certainly called his share of games that saw the Ducks go deep a few times. The long touchdown to Jeff Maehl against Oregon State in the 2009 Civil War comes to mind.
But four Oregon receivers had catches longer than 20 yards with Josh Huff and Keanon Lowe each collecting receptions of 40 yards or more.
Is that a sign of things to come? It's difficult to say for sure, but as we said all offseason, given Oregon's experience at the wide receiver position and the talent of quarterback Marcus Mariota, it's likely we'll see this Ducks continue to take chances with throws downfield.
The Run Game and Offense as a Whole Have Not Changed
Another popular offseason discussion in Oregon was how the Ducks' offense, specifically their run-pass ratio, might change under Mark Helfrich.
If De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall taught us anything, it's that the Ducks would be foolish to stray away from what has brought home the bread over the past few seasons. Josh Huff, Bralon Addison and Oregon's many other talented receivers are nice to have, but it's the ground game that will continue to determine how much success this team has.
Although it was only the Colonels, Oregon did run for a mind-blowing 500 yards on the ground last weekend.
We may see some changes in the Oregon offense if the run game is held up against a team like Stanford, but Game 1 showed that the offense isn't going to look different. The zone read is still the Ducks' bread and butter, and rushing yards are still there to come by early and often each Saturday.