Biggest Storylines Heading into Oregon Fall Camp
With Pac-12 media days in the books, Oregon's highly anticipated 2014 season is just a few short weeks away from kickoff.
The Ducks are not touting any taglines about revenge for how their 2013 season ended, when two losses down the stretch knocked them out of the BCS Championship race—not publicly, at least. But that doesn't mean head coach Mark Helfrich's team doesn't recognize the reality of making the first College Football Playoff.
"If you lose a game, that's where the opinions get the weight," Helfrich said at media days.
Indeed, two losses seemed to define the Ducks' 2013 season more than 11 wins. Such is the sentiment inherent with being a championship-contending program, which Oregon has been and should continue to be in the coming campaign.
Pac-12 media was nearly unanimous in its selection of Oregon to win the Pac-12 North before claiming its first conference championship since 2011. Expectations are high, and various storylines lay the foundation for the lofty bar set for the Ducks in 2014.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
Helfrich Making His Mark
Helfrich has a season as Oregon's head coach under his belt and is another year removed from the long shadow cast by predecessor Chip Kelly.
When asked how much more at ease Helfrich is with being himself in 2014, he said jokingly, "17 percent."
While there's not a measure to accurately gauge just how much more comfortable Helfrich is as Oregon's head coach than he was a year ago, he does have the opportunity to put his own signature on the program.
"There are things that we've tweaked slightly," Helfrich said of he and his staff. "Most of those things did not come from the two losses, but the 11 wins."
Helfrich is committed to the style that defined Oregon in a very successful last half-decade. There's only so much a coach can change when his team is in elite company with Alabama and Stanford as the most consistent Power 5 programs in that time frame.
But the Ducks are embracing certain changes in the offseason, such as adding size almost across the roster. Becoming a stronger team while still relying on the speed the Ducks are known for is one way in which this staff is making its own mark in a lineage that goes back more than 30 years.
"If our players are 100 percent committed to our culture, 100 percent committed to the process, that's the mark," Helfrich said. "Whether it's Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti or Chip Kelly, or me, that doesn't matter."
QB Marcus Mariota on the March to the Heisman Trophy
Marcus Mariota was among the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football each of the last two seasons, putting up statistics comparable with those of Heisman Trophy winners while winning 23 games.
Still, Mariota has yet to be invited to the Heisman ceremony, let alone compete for one.
"Marcus goes from the Heisman front-runner and we lose a game, and he's the worst player in history," Helfrich lamented.
Playing on an injured knee for the final month of the regular season, Mariota threw his first of only four interceptions of the season. In that stretch, the Ducks finished 2-2. For his efforts, Mariota went from a leading Heisman candidate to excluded from a ceremony that invited a remarkable six finalists.
So what more does the redshirt junior quarterback have to do to impress the pollsters responsible for doling out college football's most coveted individual honor? Well, the "individual" part describing the award may be a bit of a misnomer.
Individually, Mariota has been has electrifying as any quarterback in the nation in his first two years captaining the Ducks' offense.
In 2012, he threw 32 touchdown passes with just six interceptions, then shaved two off the latter output in 2013. Mariota also ran for more than 700 yards in each of his first two campaigns.
But late-season losses for Mariota's team ended his candidacy. It's apparent the success of the Ducks translates to the quarterback's Heisman chances, and if he's in the race at season's end, Oregon should be contending for a College Football Playoff berth.
"The thing that matters to him most, and to me most, is the team," Helfrich said.
As the team succeeds in 2014, so too will Mariota.
A Rebuilt Passing Attack
The knee injury Bralon Addison suffered in April threw an Oregon receiving corps already replacing leading pass-catcher Josh Huff into further flux.
Huff caught 62 passes for 1,140 yards in 2013, while Addison hauled in 61 receptions for 890 yards. That's a lot of production for a mostly unproven group to replicate.
But Helfrich said that there's certainty in the uncertainty.
"Funny thing in college football, you can't see [who will develop] yet," he said. "We get out there [in preseason practices] and open the Christmas presents of the newcomers and there is invariably a guy that you didn't expect, a guy that was maybe dinged up, whatever the case may be."
Helfrich offered high praise for senior Keanon Lowe, the top returning pass-catcher among Oregon wide receivers. Helfrich also reiterated his excitement for redshirt freshman Devon Allen, a spring standout in more ways than one.
"Devon Allen will take off his Superman cape from the track and come on out," Helfrich said.
Allen won the NCAA 110-meter hurdles championship in June, a month after catching touchdown passes of 45 and 49 yards in the spring game.
"[Offensive coordinator] Scott Frost and I were watching the race together," Helfrich said. "[We] kind of looked at each other after [Allen] ran that and said that may have been too fast."
Who knew such a thing as "too fast" existed at Oregon? Nevertheless, Allen's speed promises to make him a dangerous weapon.
Mariota also sees breakout potential from the tight-end unit—and not just from Pharaoh Brown or Johnny Mundt.
"Those two, as well as Evan Baylis and Koa Ka'ai. Koa has stepped up," Mariota said. "We'll see what they're able to do as a unit, but we're excited to see their growth."
Don Pellum's Defense
Oregon's defense will be placed under the microscope in 2014, and a first-year coordinator is responsible for its development.
For the first time since the 1998 season, Nick Aliotti will not be coordinating the Oregon defense. Matching that level of continuity isn't easy, but that's what new defensive coordinator Don Pellum brings to the table.
Pellum has spent more than two uninterrupted decades as a Ducks assistant. As it is for Helfrich, the 2014 campaign is an opportunity for Pellum to put his own signature on the program.
"Obviously, Coach Pellum leads the charge," Helfrich said of the defense.
Of course, the defensive coordinator's game-planning and preparation only go so far without the players enacting it come game day. Linebacker Derrick Malone is embracing an on-field leadership role, serving as an extension of the defensive coordinator.
Part of that role is having Pellum's tweaks down pat. Among those tweaks is a more varied package of blitzes.
"I love it. They're complicated, but I love it," Malone said. "We've all got to come together, be more cohesive as a team and improve our communication on all levels."