Oregon Football: Mark Helfrich's 4 Biggest Challenges for Ducks in 2014
If his first year as Oregon head coach was something of a feeling-out process, a much clearer picture is laid out before Mark Helfrich in his second season.
"Any time you go through something more than once, you better be more efficient [upon repeating]," Helfrich said on the May 1 Pac-12 teleconference call. "There's always adjustment."
As Helfrich prepares for a second season loaded with promise, a few areas of particular importance will require attention and adjustment if the Ducks are to challenge for a conference championship.
Marcus Mariota at 100 Percent
Injuries are inevitable, and there's no fail-safe method of keeping players on the field.
The injury bug bit Oregon particularly hard in its final month of the 2013 season, and one in particular doomed the Ducks' bid for a conference championship.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota continued to battle through the knee injury that hampered him down the stretch. He performed admirably despite his mobility—a crucial element of Mariota's game—being rendered ineffective.
To wit, Mariota rushed for 493 yards in the seven games prior to suffering the left MCL strain on Oct. 26 against UCLA. In the subsequent three games, he officially totaled minus-16 yards on the ground.
By season's end, he was back to form, capping 2013 with 133 rushing yards in the Alamo Bowl against Texas.
Beyond the obvious, keeping Mariota on the field and healthy is important with the uncertainty Helfrich faces on the depth chart after the redshirt junior. Jake Rodrigues and Damion Hobbs recently transferred, leaving Jeff Lockie as the likely No. 2.
Lockie's experience is limited to mop-up duty. If he's ineffective in a more prominent role, Helfrich's options are now walk-on redshirt freshman Taylor Alie and incoming first-year player Morgan Mahalak.
Stop the Run
Nothing will be as emphasized as much at Oregon this offseason as team strength. Its importance is most evident in the Ducks' refocusing on the defensive front.
Oregon was bullied at the point of attack in each of its losses last season. While other factors certainly contributed to late-season defeats at Stanford and Arizona, the Cardinal and Wildcats completely disrupted the Ducks' game plan with sustained drives built largely on the run.
As a team, Stanford gained 274 yards and averaged a modest 4.5 yards per carry. However, the Ducks were unable to prevent the Cardinal from nickel-and-diming their way down the field and converting first downs at critical moments.
Against Arizona, the Ducks were simply gashed by a combination of running back Ka'Deem Carey and quarterback B.J. Denker.
New defensive coordinator Don Pellum's emphasis on adding weight and strength is a direct response to losing such battles in the trenches.
"We wanted to get bigger and stronger. Some guys have added some weight,” defensive line coach Ron Aiken told Matt Prehm of 247Sports.com. “Those guys have gained weight because we need to be a little more sturdy up front."
Build a Receiving Corps from Scratch
Josh Huff's departure to the NFL leaves Oregon to replace its No. 1 target. Losing De'Anthony Thomas to the pros eliminates another proven commodity from the Ducks' passing attack.
Add Bralon Addison's knee injury, suffered during practice last month, and Mariota is essentially working with an entirely new corps of receiving targets.
Between Huff, Addison and Thomas, Oregon has lost 2,276 yards and 20 touchdowns of production in the passing game from a season ago.
Redshirt senior Keanon Lowe is no stranger to the program, and he's welcomed a role as the unit's leader.
"He’s doing a great job on the field being a leader and being more vocal. He’s almost to the point where I have to tell him to be quiet," offensive coordinator Scott Frost told Tyson Alger of The Oregonian.
Now Lowe's production must match his veteran savvy.
Redshirt freshmen Devon Allen and Darren Carrington both impressed in the spring, culminating with standout performances in the intrasquad scrimmage. Helfrich said on the Pac-12 teleconference call that each "showed flashes."
Sustaining those flashes in live-game situations is a different challenge, and one they must meet to make this Oregon receiving corps formidable.
Turnovers Equal Wins
The effectiveness of Oregon's offense is partially tied into the success of its defense.
By denying opponents scoring opportunities on one end, the Ducks quickly piled points up on the other, creating a suffocating effect that often ends in routs.
To that end, Oregon has been exceedingly efficient at generating turnovers in recent years, and 2013 was no exception. The Ducks gained 29 takeaways (17th in the nation) and enjoyed the 14th-best turnover differential.
Oregon also had a proclivity for converting turnovers into immediate points last season. In blowouts of Washington State and Texas, for example, the Ducks scored touchdowns on takeaways.
However, their production waned against the stronger competition on the schedule. Against sub-.500 opponents, Oregon's average turnover margin was 1.67 per game on the positive side. That number dipped to minus-0.17 against teams with records above .500.
In losses to Stanford and Arizona, the figure was a much bleaker minus-2.50.
Oregon's correlation between winning the turnover battle and winning on the scoreboard is abundantly clear.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.