Duck Football Poised to Fly Higher

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

It was just a year ago that many fans were crying “now or never” for Duck football. After all, it was going to be the last year for Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Arik Armstead, Erik Dargan, Tony Washington … and the list goes on.

“Now” didn’t quite happen, but in the aftermath, it hardly seems that the sky is falling.

There were those of us who took a look at who was expected to return in 2015 and concluded that despite the departing talent, 2014 had the potential to go down as a building year toward 2015. Nothing has happened to change my mind — and “Why the 2015 version of Oregon Ducks football will be better than 2014,” is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. Freshman and sophomore leadership matures. Anybody who makes it big as a freshman or sophomore in a top program is well on his way to becoming an absolute star. The biggest stars of the 2014 Ducks were one freshman and two sophomores — and they didn’t include the likes of Charles Nelson, Royce Freeman or Thomas Tyner.

Mark Helfrich was a star head coach in just his second year.

Kevin Cline

Mark Helfrich was a star head coach in just his second year.

The three biggest stars last year were the three key-most people charged with running the program: Head Coach Mark Helfrich (a sophomore), Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost (a sophomore) and Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum (a freshman).

Perhaps the thing most overlooked in evaluating the performance of the 2014 Ducks is that going into the season, the three “senior level” coaches had a total of two years experience in their roles. Certainly, they have been around the program for some time, but to step into higher roles and take a team all the way to the National Championship Game in their first or second year in their respective positions shows a remarkable level of coaching talent.

For some unfathomable reason, this has gone largely unnoticed — and by too many Duck fans, unappreciated.

What makes this exciting for 2015 is that Helfrich, Frost and Pellum have the advantage of still being relatively low on their learning curves. You can expect them to improve a lot faster and a lot more than, oh say, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Steve Sarkisian, Jim Mora, Rich Rodriguez or Todd Graham — just to name a few.

It is fair to expect that 2015 will see solutions to the few problems that the coaches had during the 2014 season — things like stopping the counter play against Ohio State, for instance.

The coaches have the additional advantage of not having too many challenges to focus on. A bottom feeder team carries a certain amount of “Where do I begin?” with it. To take a step up from the 2014 season, the Ducks just need a tweak here and a tweak there. These guys are bright enough to pull it off.

2. Player personnel. There are few position groups where Oregon has any likelihood of taking a step down from 2014 to 2015. Quarterback is the most obvious. Two Heisman quarterbacks in a row? Highly unlikely.

But when was the last time Oregon just couldn’t get it done because of weakness at quarterback? It probably goes back to the year that Mike Belotti struggled to decide between Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf — and that’s been long enough ago that few can even remember which year it was.

In 2015, it appears that the choice will be Jeff Lockie – who understudied last year’s Heisman winner for three years — or Vernon Adams, who lit up the FBS for three years. That’s not a bad problem to have.

Bralon Addison's return from injury adds to Oregon's skill position strength.

Kevin Cline

Bralon Addison’s return from injury adds to Oregon’s skill position strength.

Running backs and receivers? Probably the best ever at Oregon, and among the best anywhere.

Offensive line? Three starters are gone, but the injuries of 2014 provided returning experience for 2015. Throw in 2013 starter Tyler Johnstone and Notre Dame transfer Matt Hegarty and you have an all-star cast.

Defensive secondary? Young, but talented — and they also picked up good experience last year.

Front seven? Also a check-up and a check — size and speed on the line, and critical addition to experience among the linebackers, especially in stopping the nasty counter play that beat them in last year’s National Championship Game.

3. Culture vs Tradition. Oregon does not have the tradition of Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State, LSU, USC or even Washington. Culture, though, is another matter — triple digit sellouts at Autzen Stadium, double digit years of consecutive wins against the “traditional” power to the north, three wins last year against top ten teams, one of the highest winning percentages in college ball for the past five years, regular appearances in the highest profile bowl games. These things — more so than games won before a single current player was so much as twinkle in his dad’s eye — add up to how a program views itself.

Winning football culture reigns supreme at Autzen.

Kevin Cline

Winning football culture reigns supreme at Autzen.

Oregon naysayers will cite lack of tradition as a reason that Oregon can never win it all. Tradition has its place, but it’s no substitute for current culture, despite what some Husky fans might have you believe. Tradition without the current winning culture to back it up equals “has-been” — plain and simple. And being yesteryear’s news is nothing to brag about.

Oregon has one of the strongest and highest self-images of all of the college football programs in the country — on and off the field. The team culture recognizes the difference between confidence and arrogance and stays on the right side of the line. The players take nothing for granted on the field and know that off-field antics won’t be winked at.

Oregon’s culture runs deep, honest and strong. Unlike Alabama’s Saban, Helfrich makes no excuses for losing. Unlike Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, he doesn’t have to face up to upgrading standards after years of permissiveness in off-field behavior. Unlike Baylor’s Art Bryles, he doesn’t make up stories about beating more top ten teams in the country than anybody else last year. Unlike UCLA’s Mora, he doesn’t have meltdowns with his assistants on national television.

The bottom line: Oregon is doing it right. With a young coaching staff gaining experience, strong player personnel and an established positive culture, the 2015 version will be an evolution from the 2014 team.

It would be arrogance on the part of Oregon fans to state that the Ducks will win the 2015 national championship before so much as a game has been played. But it’s no more than wishful thinking on the part of other teams’ fans to discount the possibility — or to believe that Oregon will fade to obscurity any time soon.

Top photo by John Strobeck

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