2nd-Year Oregon Coach Mark Helfrich Threatening to Take Ducks to Next Level

Ray GlierCollege Football National ColumnistSeptember 10, 2014

Chris Pietsch/AP Images

ATLANTA — Down here in the South, we didn't mind so much that previous Oregon coach.

He had a "good ol' boy" name, Chip. He wore a visor, just like the Head Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. Chip Kelly had a bread basket on him, too, as if he had been through the routine a few times of mopping up what was left of the ribs with a loaf from the Piggly Wiggly. He dueled with the NCAA and...well, we won't get into all the programs down here that did like Chip—or worse—in regard to rules violations.

We sure liked Chip, mostly because we could thump him in the big games.

We didn't think much of Chip's football. His teams were more slick than stout. We prefer 18-wheelers, and Chip came at us with scooters. We ran them into a ditch. Auburn, with a below-average SEC defense, held the Ducks 30 points under their scoring average in the 2010 title game. LSU toyed with Chip's Ducks eight months later to start the 2011 season (40-27).

This new guy, though. He's a threat. We better keep an eye on Chip's replacement.

This column is supposed to be about Oregon coach Mark Helfrich getting out from under the shadow of Kelly, who had 46 wins in four years and got the Ducks to a national championship game before leaving for the NFL. Helfrich is two games into his second season and is 13-2, so he has some work to do to get affirmation from the Oregon faithful.

But Saturday's 46-27 win over Michigan State could be epic for Oregon and Helfrich—and bad news for Southern-fried football. The Ducks displayed two running backs who are thick enough at 229 pounds and 215 pounds to muscle their way into an SEC backfield rotation. The other Ducks look a little different in their uniforms, too—a little thicker on the O-line than three years ago when they lost to Auburn. That's what it looks like on tape anyway. The Ducks have some blub to go with the Blur, which is what they call their offense.

We like to say down here that the national championship trophy has been in the South so long, it has a sunburn, but Helfrich could be out from under Kelly's shadow sooner than you think and hijack our trophy back to those Northwest rain forests using all that shoe company money and the conniving offense he runs with quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Here is what Helfrich's 18-month stamp on the program looks like: His talented team went toe-to-toe with brawny Michigan State for two quarters, got whacked pretty hard and didn't crumble. From the looks of things, Helfrich's team learned from losses to Stanford and Arizona last year and kept its wits. It looked like some coaching chemistry was at work at halftime, and there was no sign of a second-year head coach wound too tightly. That was cool.

EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 6: Arik Armstead #9 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after a sack in the second half of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Autzen Stadium on September 6, 2014 in Eugene, Oregon. Oregon won 46-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Get
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Here is the worry part for fans in the opposite corner of the country: Helfrich does not seem ambitious like Kelly. He is 40 years old, he is from Oregon, and he is going to stay at Oregon for a while. He is as smart as Kelly and maybe just as adept at recruiting. Dirk Koetter, the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, gave Helfrich a job when he was 24 and watched him become the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I (32) in 2006 and blossom into the head coach of the No. 2 team in the country in 2014. Koetter will tell you the SEC is in for it.

"He can do it all in his head. He doesn't have to draw the pictures on the board," Koetter said. "Not many people can do that.

"He sees the game through the quarterback's eyes. We all have ideas, but if your quarterback can't execute those ideas, they are lines on a paper. Mark is as smart a football guy as I know."

Koetter took Helfrich with him from Oregon to Boise State and then Arizona State. Record-setting quarterbacks followed.

When the Falcons went into a staff meeting Saturday to prepare for their season opener, the Ducks trailed Michigan State. When they came out, Oregon was romping to a 19-point win.

"I texted him and asked him to send me the halftime speech so we could use it, but he deflected any praise and took no credit," Koetter said. "Mark has always been able to keep his cool, think on his feet and call plays under pressure. It doesn't surprise me his team responded to him."

The folks in Oregon, I'm sure, still follow Chip in Philadelphia, and plenty probably still have Mat Kearney's ballad, "Chip Don't Go," on their iPods. Kelly's teams finished No. 11, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 2 in the final polls, and Kearney pleaded with him by song in January 2013 to stay a Duck.

Chip may not be missed for much longer. Helfrich, who is the first native of Oregon to be the Ducks head coach in 71 years, is looking comfortable in Chip's old chair. You hear less and see less of Chip's slogan, "Win the Day," which was pasted all over Autzen Stadium. Perhaps it's a new sort of day for the Ducks.

Kelly had a rock-star persona about him. Helfrich acts more like the biology major he is. Somebody tried to ask him if the win over Michigan State was his signature game, and he said he would never make the program about him, or something like that. Kelly seemed aloof and even phoned in by satellite for some booster events. Helfrich seems a little less the jockey. He also must be a decent fellow because Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, all of whom could have left school for the NFL following the 2013 season, stayed.

Helfrich has kept the wheels on with Kelly gone to the NFL. He has been hauling in recruiting classes to match what Kelly harvested, and when you can win with yours and win with somebody else's, that's good work.

Helfrich, it figures, doesn't believe in stamps or legacies or riding in on a white horse as hero.

"I don't own a stamp," Helfrich said in a news conference. "If we're that group and team that kept on winning after Chip Kelly left, that's good enough legacy for me."

I'm still not convinced Helfrich gets out from behind the Kelly shadow this year and wins a title. The offensive line has a couple of weak spots. Watch the tape.

Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

Georgia, Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn don't have as many burners offensively as the Ducks, but they have offensive lines that maul consistently better than Oregon. The Ducks also do not have Georgia running back Todd Gurley or the stable of backs Alabama has, but Oregon has some approximations—the 215-pound Thomas Tyner and the 229-pound Royce Freeman.

What Helfrich has over the SEC is a more well-rounded, seasoned quarterback. None of the SEC teams have a quarterback like Mariota. (No, A&M, Kenny Hill is not Mariota after two games.) The quarterback and the coach work together to dissect defenses, and many feel if Mariota had not gotten hurt last year, Oregon would have played for the title again.

"Since he got with Chip, Mark won't give me all their spread secrets," Koetter said. "They definitely know what they are looking for in how defenses adjust to their spread."

We'll see how far Mariota and the second-year coach can go. When Oregon can beat an SEC team, or Florida State, to the national championship trophy and do it on a neutral field, then maybe the Ducks will be anointed as a true national power and Helfrich can cast his own shadow.

For now, the second-ranked Ducks own half of the country. They have 59 wins the last six years and zero national titles.

Helfrich is still an obscure guy here east of the Mississippi and will stay that way until he wins the big one.

We'll get a chance to see the Oregon machismo against Stanford on Nov. 1, perhaps against Southern Cal on December 5 and maybe against an SEC team or Florida State in the College Football Playoff, maybe even in a rematch with Michigan State. We'll see. I saw the Ducks offensive line getting handled by the Spartans on some snaps. The idea that the team was more slick than stout was not a made-up narrative. But the narrative is being recrafted as the Ducks add power.

Who knows? In three months, if Helfrich does damage to our rep here as Kings of College Football For All Time, we might have to plead with the great Kearney to write a song for us.

"Chip, You Good Ol' Boy, Go Back to Oregon," or something like that.

Ray Glier has covered college football and various other sports for 20 years. His work has appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is the author of How the SEC Became Goliath (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2013).

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