4 Issues We Would Love Oregon's Mark Helfrich to Address at Pac-12 Media Days
For Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, the 2013 season was about settling in and getting a feel for his new role. His second year is more about putting his own signature on the Ducks after following the tough act of predecessor Chip Kelly.
"When you go through something more than once, you better be more efficient and better," Helfrich said on the coaches teleconference call in May, via Pac-12.com.
Helfrich is through his second spring practice season, and next week in Hollywood is another major milestone: Helfrich's second Pac-12 media days.
The coming campaign is one of high potential and high expectations for Helfrich's Ducks. Oregon is a popular pick for the new College Football Playoff, but qualifying likely means Helfrich winning his first Pac-12 championship.
Media days should offer insight into the Ducks' preparation for the season and continued acclimation to their no-longer-so-new leader.
The Byron Marshall-Thomas Tyner Dynamic
Byron Marshall is the Pac-12's top returning rusher, coming off a 2013 with 1,038 yards. His 14 rushing touchdowns is tops among returning running backs, as well.
Still, hype leading up to Marshall's junior season is scarce. That's because rising sophomore Thomas Tyner commanded the spotlight in recent months.
A 5-star recruit in 2013, and Oregon's most highly touted signee, Tyner was used primarily in a complementary role until Marshall was sidelined with an injury down the stretch. But, as the Ducks' primary ball-carrier against rival Oregon State, Tyner rolled off 140 yards and a touchdown.
He continued to impress in the offseason, stealing the show in Oregon's spring game.
Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost face an enviable dilemma. Both Marshall and Tyner are on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given to college football's top running back. Either could have a huge season.
Combine the duo with Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Marcus Mariota, and Oregon boasts one of the top rushing attacks in college football.
The question isn't whether the Ducks will pile up huge yards on the ground—they will. Rather, how do Frost and Helfrich plan to deploy their running back tandem?
The Transition from Nick Aliotti to Don Pellum
Former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti caught the nation off-guard last December with his sudden retirement.
Aliotti spent nearly 15 years overseeing the Oregon defense in his most recent run—a long time indeed, though still shy of successor Don Pellum's 21 in the program.
With the well-tenured Pellum assuming duties, logic would dictate it will be steady-as-she-goes for the Oregon defense. But, after suffering two late-season losses that ostensibly kept the Ducks out of the BCS title race in 2013, Pellum's promotion promised tweaks and an attitude adjustment.
Pellum recognizes the pressure on his side of the ball, as the Ducks pursue one of the four berths into the first College Football Playoff.
"The reality is, there's expectations and responsibilities that come along with the rise of the program," Pellum told George Schroeder of USA Today. "We've just got to continue to push this thing."
In May, on the coaches teleconference, via Pac-12.com, Helfrich said the defense was more than holding its own against the offense. But how will performance in April translate to Saturdays in the autumn? That's among the more burning questions facing the Oregon coaching staff just weeks out from the 2014 season.
Only five programs have matched Oregon's 23 wins the last two seasons. Among that group is Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champions and proverbial thorn in the Ducks' side.
The Cardinal account for two of Oregon's three losses in 2012 and 2013. Both Stanford wins came in the final month of the regular season, and both blemished Oregon's previously perfect records.
While Mariota's knee injury contributed to the Ducks' slow start and eventual loss a season ago, the Cardinal undoubtedly had both the game plan and talent to stifle Oregon's otherwise unstoppable offense.
Defensive coordinator Derek Mason is gone, as are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy—two of the top Oregon stoppers of the last two seasons.
Still, Stanford's returning corps feature four preseason nominees for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nation's premier defender: linebacker A.J. Tarpley, defensive end Henry Anderson, safety Jordan Richards and cornerback Alex Carter. The Cardinal defense will remain formidable, and the offensive line is again stout with Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy anchoring it.
Certainly, Helfrich has no intention of revealing every step Oregon is taking to finally fell the trees.
Pressure to Win the Pac-12 in 2014?
The pieces for an outstanding season are all in place: a deep and experienced offensive line; a multifaceted backfield; a top-flight linebacker corps; and the Pac-12's best quarterback each of the last two seasons.
But is there also a sense of urgency? Mariota has eligibility remaining after the 2014 season, but there's hardly a guarantee he'll spurn the NFL draft for a second consecutive year.
Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, on the other hand, are assuredly gone. The All-American center and cornerback held off early entry into the draft, but are seniors this season.
The Pac-12 grows deeper and more challenging every year. Oregon is still one of the conference's teams to beat, and continued success on the recruiting trail should keep the Ducks at the forefront for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, Oregon finds itself playing catch-up to Stanford while the rest of the race is tightening. With one of its best all-around rosters and a favorable schedule—tough opponents like Michigan State, Stanford and Washington all visit Autzen Stadium—the coming season looks like one of Oregon's better chances to win the league.
Insight from Helfrich on the pressure to do so could be a highlight of Pac-12 media days.
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