Oregon went 12-1 last year and were an overtime loss away from playing for the national championship. Chip Kelly has taken his coaching acumen to the NFL and new HC Mark Helfrich opens his first spring practice in charge on April 2. Native Oregonian and college football writer extraordinaire Kurt Liedtke breaks down the Ducks for us in our Oregon 2013 spring preview.
Success breeds more success, but also heightens expectations. With Oregon’s unprecedented run under Chip Kelly as head coach (46-7, four consecutive BCS games, three conference titles, two BCS trophies), the expectations from fans reached perhaps unreasonably high levels.
It was odd to see the amount of disappointment from fans over the course of the season, perhaps rightfully so with the way college football’s eyes were squarely on Oregon under Kelly.
Over the past six years Oregon has grown from a quality upper-level program to the elite, suddenly it became not just enough to score, but expected to score on every play, not just enough to win, but to win by 30+.
Losing was unthinkable, and anything short of a national title while Chip was in town was thought of as a disappointment.
Oregon lost only one game all season by a field goal, setting new offensive records along the way, all while being led by a freshman quarterback (Marcus Mariota) and after losing statistically the best running back in school history (LaMichael James).
Yet a 12-1 season and BCS trophy apparently was not enough for the expectations of the average Oregon fan, as the season is still met with a lot of what-ifs and disappointment from the fan base.
National championship or bust is the motto in Eugene now, which based on team performance and talent level is a plausible outcome for the foreseeable future. It is also reasonable to think that with Chip Kelly leaving, that window to win a title may have closed.
I personally was thrilled with Oregon’s performance in 2012, culminating in the third BCS trophy in school history, and remain eager of the future with so much talent returning.
The 2012 season was on par with my expectations for the year, while the thought of an undefeated season and national title was a possibility, too many forgot how difficult of a task that is to actually complete.
Despite the malaise from many of the fans over the Stanford loss and Chip’s departure, there are plenty of teams around the country wishing they could be in Oregon’s Nike shoes right now.
Oregon’s strength is actually in its youth — experienced youth. Aside from a senior-laden linebacker crew last year, the 2012 campaign was led largely by freshmen and sophomores.
Oregon remains a young team, with plenty of game experience and success, leading to the obvious conclusion that the best football from the Ducks is yet to come, a scary prospect for the rest of the Pac-12 and NCAA considering how close they came to playing for the title last year.
Marcus Mariota as a first-time starter broke nearly every single-season passing record, and the backfield will be just fine even with the graduation of Kenjon Barner, as Byron Marshall showed great promise as a freshman and the ultimate x-factor De’Anthony Thomas returns for his junior campaign.
Added to the arsenal is high school all-american wunderkind Thomas Tyner, with senior Josh Huff remaining the top target and deep threat.
Oregon is a team with tremendous talent, depth, experienced coaching staff, world-class facilities, one of the best homefield advantages in the country, and an easy schedule in 2013. There’s not a lot of negatives to find with this team’s prospects.
Oregon’s biggest losses to graduation were at linebacker, and it becomes the top area of concern for the upcoming campaign. Seniors Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso will now be playing on Sundays, and were the heart of the defenses during Oregon’s great run.
Their projected replacements have game experience, but filling their shoes will be a big task, especially with Anthony Wallace’s curious decision to transfer after the Fiesta Bowl.
When senior and all-american candidate John Boyett went down for the year early last season, it raised concerns, but the stellar play of his backups Avery Patterson and Erick Dargan last year put to rest fear that the secondary could be susceptible in 2013.
Running back depth is a concern. Oregon’s run game has re-written the record books in recent years, Lamichael James and Kenjon Barner ranking #1 and #2 respectively on UO’s all-time rushing list.
DeAnthony Thomas returns, but he is not the type of player that can carry the load getting 20+ carries a game. That duty will fall to Byron Marshall, a true sophomore who played well last year in his limited role, but has yet to prove he can handle the wear of a full season as the primary ball-carrier.
Oregon recruited two running backs in this year’s class, native Oregonian prep superstar Thomas Tyner and Arizona powerback Kani Benoit, and both will be expected to contribute immediately with Dontrel Wilson deciding to spurn his Oregon commitment on signing day, opting to choose Ohio State in the wake of Chip Kelly’s departure.
The Ducks have two junior walk-on running backs with game experience, Kenny Bassett and Ayele Forde, but neither are the top-level caliber talents that have driven the Oregon offensive machine in the Ducks’ spread era.
A lot will be expected of Marshall, Thomas, and Tyner, and an injury to any one of them could prove devastating.
Oregon promoted from within in an attempt to maintain the program’s success and system. The program has had the tremendous luxury of a stable coaching staff, many of the assistants having worked with the team for decades, experiencing only their fourth new head coach since 1977.
That continuity in the coaching staff can be directly attributed to the Ducks’ level of consistency throughout the years.
However, replacing a unique presence like Chip Kelly is impossible, particularly considering that Kelly called all of the offensive plays.
How much Helfrich can emulate Kelly’s system is the biggest question mark entering the 2013 campaign, but with so much of the coaching staff remaining intact after the regime change it seems likely that the Ducks will keep rolling.
Perhaps instead the biggest dilemma will be getting past Chip Kelly’s immense shadow and establishing a new identity as Helfrich’s team, not Chip’s.
So far Helfrich has passed with flying colors, in that he somehow kept the recruiting class almost entirely intact, a rarity after a coaching change so close to signing day.
This was accomplished by an unusual move, the entire coaching staff making group visits to each commit to show their solidarity to the program and showcase the family atmosphere. Proving that the program is bigger than just one coach worked, as Oregon finished with a top-20 recruiting class, even stealing a few highly ranked recruits on signing day.
It is way too early to judge if Coach Helfrich will come anywhere close to the level of success Chip Kelly achieved during his six years in Eugene, but the expectations from fans will not waver, and he has been handed one of the top teams in the country with a stable and experienced staff, making his chances of matching if not exceeding Kelly’s marks a possibility.
Kurt Liedtke is a freelance sports and music journalist, a native Oregonian working with numerous publications and websites. He is VP of Campus Attic, a collegiate apparel and media company set to launch summer 2013. For more Oregon football analysis and commentary you can follow Kurt on Twitter @Keeerrrttt1.