Every head coach faces difficult decisions on just about every day of his tenure.
Sometimes, those decisions can be bigger than the day-to-day running of a program or a determination that affects the outcome of a game. Sometimes, those decisions can mark a turning point in one's tenure at a school and be the impetus for change if things go wrong from that point forward—or the starting point for sustained success if things go right.
It appears we've reached one of those turning-point moments in Eugene for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich. The Beaver State native has his dream job with the Ducks but is facing plenty of questions after a 2015 season in which the team lost four games for the first time since 2007.
Just about anybody who follows the program knows this is a critical juncture for Helfrich. He'll either make it known he's the right guy for the foreseeable future or fully morph into the West Coast version of Larry Coker—someone who inherited a talented team and took it to a national title game.
Of all the decisions that could have a profound impact on Oregon going forward, none are as important as fixing the defense. Despite their 9-4 record, anybody who watched the Ducks this past season knew the team was in for a change at defensive coordinator, and that is precisely what happened in the wake of a disastrous collapse against TCU in the Alamo Bowl.
Don Pellum was quickly demoted to linebackers coach, a saving grace extended to a longtime staff member. On Saturday, the next piece of the puzzle was complete, as the program announced former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke would be the new DC.
It was a move that drew plenty of laughs from the Great Lakes region and plenty of head scratches from those in the Pacific Northwest. Given his failed tenure with the Wolverines, Hoke is no doubt a gamble for Helfrich and the program at this key moment, but it's a risk that has a chance of paying off in 2016 and beyond.
"He's been an excellent head coach, he's been an excellent defensive coach, for a long, long time," Helfrich said in a media teleconference the day of the hire, according to the program. "He's been around a lot of great people, and he's coached a lot of great people. I think he's going to have a renewed bounce in his step (after not coaching in 2015), as a 'young' old guy."
The biggest issue with the hire is the qualifications on Hoke's resume—or one glaring lack thereof. While the 57-year-old has been a part of plenty of successful programs and been named coach of the year in three different conferences (the Big Ten, MAC and Mountain West), he has not been the formal defensive coordinator of a team since 1982—and that was at a high school in Indiana.
As a longtime defensive line coach (including a stop at Oregon State from 1989-1994), Hoke has no doubt gotten his hands dirty when it comes to game-planning on defense and helping win ballgames on Saturdays. Still, it's notable a veteran coach who is known for not using a headset on the sideline will now be drawing up schemes and making the calls for the first time in a long while.
If there's any hesitation for Oregon fans with the Hoke hire, it starts and ends right there. We simply don't know how good he will be in the pressure cooker of a beautiful afternoon at Autzen Stadium. We don't know how good his halftime adjustments will be or what kind of calls he'll dial up in crunch-time situations.
Then there's trying to integrate a new scheme in Eugene, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and doing it with one of the fastest offenses in the country on the opposite side of the practice field. He'll also have to do it while getting a staff of longtime veteran coaches he didn't hire on the same page. We'll find out soon enough how well it will all work out.
"As we've said many times, we're in the 'get better' business," Helfrich said on his conference call. "We just felt as a program, and I just felt as leader of that program, that was the direction we needed to go, as far as a different voice, a different command over that unit.
"We needed just a different direction, and that will be schematic as well."
The good news is the Hoke-Oregon marriage has nowhere to go but up. The Ducks were dead last in the Pac-12 last season in scoring defense, giving up a robust 6.03 yards per play and an amazing 37.5 points per game. The latter number was a huge jump from the year prior (23.6 points per outing), and the problem was especially noticeable on the back end, as the team allowed a whopping 35 touchdown passes.
Given such a starting point, it will be easy to show improvement. The 2016 schedule should allow everybody to get used to each other, too, with only a trip to Nebraska looming as a moderate-to-difficult game in the first month of the season.
There's also a decent amount of talent for Hoke to work with when he starts teaching on the field this spring. Defensive end Canton Kaumatule, who was rated a 5-star recruit by 247Sports, is in line to start after getting his feet wet as a true freshman this past season, and linebacker Torrodney Prevot had 48 tackles and 2½ sacks last season as a rotation player. The majority of the secondary returns with experience too, a double-edged sword when factoring in last year's product but certainly better than a completely fresh group.
Sure, the defense will have to find players to replace stars like DeForest Buckner and virtually the entire linebacker corps, but by no means are the Ducks in a bad place when it comes to the depth chart.
And while there are certainly questions about just how hands-on Hoke was with his defenses in the past, his resume does suggest improvement from the get-go. His teams at Ball State and San Diego State were both fairly stout on defense in offense-driven leagues, with the Aztecs seeing a drop from 6.18 yards per play allowed in 2008, the year before Hoke arrived, to 4.86 in his second and final season at the helm. Hoke also made noticeable strides on that side of the ball in Ann Arbor, with the Wolverines going from 101st in the FBS in yards per play allowed the year prior to his arrival to 14th in his fourth and final season.
Just as importantly, he also recruited well at Michigan and should bring some of those same chops to a program that hasn't turned its recent success into top-10 recruiting classes like some expected.
More than all that, though, Helfrich's hire of Hoke might pay benefits beyond the X's and O's on Saturdays. Helfrich is a first-time head coach entering his fourth season and doing so at one of the top programs in the country. Facing the loss of several key assistants this offseason, most notably offensive coordinator Scott Frost to Central Florida, it certainly can't hurt to reshape the Ducks staff to include somebody with 12 years' experience as an FBS head coach—and who has been on the big stage at a place like Michigan to boot.
Simply being able to bounce ideas off a coach like Hoke figures to help Helfrich in both the short and long term. Don't discount such a resource for a head coach facing an important season ahead and a seat that is already warm from angry fans ready to run him out of town with two losses or more.
Even so, it's all quite the gamble and may very well be the most intriguing hire of the offseason by any head coach. Only time will tell if Hoke is the right fit at Oregon or if the program missed the mark in not hiring somebody else with a better track record as a defensive coordinator, such as former players like Mike Nolan or Justin Wilcox.
For those expecting Hoke to come in and orchestrate a Gene Chizik-to-North Carolina turnaround, that's probably aiming too high. Still, a potential uptick in aggressiveness and a fresh perspective when it comes to on-field coaching is bound to come out of the hire, and there really is nowhere to go but up for a unit that was mediocre at its best in most statistical categories.
The fast-paced offense that gives others trouble will always be there in Eugene, and it could take only a little bit of health and good fortune for that side of the ball to return to normal for an entire season. A successful 2016 therefore will come down to whether the defense can do enough to get the team back on top in the Pac-12 North and to the conference title game.
That may just be the reason why hiring Brady Hoke was a gamble worth taking for Mark Helfrich and the Oregon Ducks.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @BryanDFischer.
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