Oregon Football: Mark Helfrich's Biggest Spring Practice Concerns

Kyle KensingContributor IApril 14, 2014

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich listens to a question during a Valero Alamo Bowl news conference, Thursday,  Dec. 12, 2013, in San Antonio. Texas and Oregon will play in the NCAA college football game Dec. 30. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
eric gay

As Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich and staff address preexisting concerns, new challenges arise as the Ducks enter the back-half of their spring practice schedule. 

Oregon is coming off an 11-win season and returns 15 starters—second most in the Pac-12 behind only UCLA. To label any of the issues Helfrich faces heading into 2014 as especially dire would be an overreaction. 

Still, the Ducks' two losses at Stanford and Arizona exposed an issue of particularly pressing need: play on both lines. On the offensive side, establishing depth is crucial.

Tyler Johnstone is expected to return from a right knee injury in time for the season, but his absence provided Matt Pierson and Andre Yruretagoyena an opportunity to work alongside the first string. 

The defensive line struggled to slow Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney and Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey—the result of getting pushed off the pile. 

Rick Scuteri

“We wanted to get bigger and stronger. Some guys have added some weight,” defensive line coach Ron Aiken told 247Sports.com. “Those guys have gained weight because we need to be a little more sturdy up front.”

Aiken is not exactly working from scratch, but his unit is replacing some key contributors. Thus, the spring progression of Arik Armstead, Alex Balducci and T.J. Daniel takes on added importance. 

The situation is similar in the secondary, long a standout facet of the Oregon defense. Though the Ducks return All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, losing cornerback Terrance Mitchell and safety Avery Patterson demands some new Ducks to step up. 

First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum touted the performance of the young defensive backs to The Oregonian, a group that includes such notable names as redshirt freshman safety Tyree Robinson

I think the young safeties are doing actually a pretty good job. We’ve thrown the playbook at them, it’s not like we’re putting it in slowly, we’re throwing it all at them right now and seeing what sticks. Those guys have been keeping up and keeping pace.

Expanded roles for the less experienced Ducks is a recurring theme across all phases at present. Via KEZI, Helfrich told reporters Friday workouts were dedicated to giving some reserves more repetitions. The goal is to have the second and third strings on the depth chart acclimated to the uptempo pace at which Oregon's starters play. 

Injury can change the team dynamic in a moment. Quarterback Marcus Mariota's knee injury last season was a detriment to the Ducks' final stretch of 2013. The injury bug again bit the Ducks offense in a significant manner again, this time claiming wide receiver Bralon Addison. 

"I can neither confirm nor deny anything [pertaining to reports Addison tore his ACL]," Helfrich said Friday per KEZI, but added: "Bralon was at practice today. And the wide receiver groups—every single one of them—is trying to get better." 

The remainder of the spring practices will lay the framework for a receiving corps that could be without its top returning playmaker. His absence forces the issue of initiating new contributors. 

Offensive coordinator Scott Frost alluded to the untapped, yet, abundant potential Oregon has at wide receiver, per The Oregonian

... We have a lot of other guys on scholarship. We've got a great quarterback to throw to them and in some ways we're kind of glad if it was going to happen it happened now, because a lot of these young guys are going to get reps and they're just going to have to grow up faster.

Indeed, Oregon is not lacking for talent at the position with 4-star recruit Jalen Brown in the mix as an early enrollee, and Dwayne Stanford standing out early. 

The loss of Addison is not just a matter of replacing his production or even his ceiling as the presumptive No. 1 target with 2013 receiving leader Josh Huff gone for the NFL.

If Addison is shelved for any great length of time—and an ACL could hold him out for the duration of the 2014 season—his replacement must match Addison's contributions as a blocker.