Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out
Amid the controversy of why and how to fix it, there’s one thing we can all agree on: Oregon football 2016 sucks.
“Why” is no doubt complicated. If we want to be simplistic, we can just blame the coaches and join the witch hunt. Reality, however, is more complicated than that. Personally, I subscribe to the “perfect storm” theory. Usually, life sits somewhere in the middle, but sometimes everything goes right, and sometimes pretty much everything goes wrong, no matter what you do.
Besides whatever coaching issues may exist, a number of other conditions have fallen into line to create the mess that is Oregon football 2016, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Two that haven’t received much press are hangover and self-fulfilling prophesy.
Hangover, self-fulfilling prophesy and where we go from here are the subjects of this issue of the Three-and-Out.
1. Hangover. There was really only one direction for Oregon football to go immediately after the euphoria of the national championship appearance and Heisman award of the 2014 season. That direction, of course, was downward, and doubtlessly had an impact on the players left over from that season.
That, fellow Ducks fans, is a major issue to deal with. I know, because I’ve been there personally – more than once. The first happened my senior year at Oregon, way back in the day when Oregon had an NCAA swim program.
I had come in as a walk-on freshman out of a summer-only swim program in Idaho to compete against the best the West Coast had to offer, which was substantial. By my junior year, we Ducks had risen to ninth at NCAA’s, and I had clawed my way up to all-conference honors in the 200-yard breaststroke.
Then came my senior year. Four new swimmers entered the conference in my event. But they weren’t just any four swimmers. They were four of the top ten in the world. I knew it was over. My best was behind me, and there was no way I was going to rise to the occasion.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that I had to face the issue of what comes next in life. How was I going to start a career the next year? Or would I simply be on the wrong end of target practice in Viet Nam?
Oregon football’s 2016 upperclassmen face a similar situation. Their best – an appearance in the 2014 season national championship game – is behind them. And the NFL ain’t happenin’ for pretty much all of them.
I don’t know what’s going on in their minds, but I know what was going on in my mind when I was in a similar situation. I went through the motions, but it was over. And I knew it. It wasn’t exactly Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota on my mind, but somehow women, how to make some money and how to avoid getting shot at were enough of a distraction.
2. Self-fulfilling prophesy. On top of the loss of 19 official visitations due to Chip Kelly’s negligence in following rules, the present coaching staff had to deal with the issue that Kelly was no longer here – and they are still dealing with it. Fans who can be so worshipful of somebody who dumped them doubtlessly have more fondness (and more belief that “it’ll be different this time”) for ex-wives and ex-girlfriends than I do.
Because Kelly did not stick around long enough to solidify Oregon’s position as king of the hill, the position was shaky. Does anyone doubt that opposing coaches were using “Kelly is gone” as a negative recruiting tool? Please spare yourself the embarrassment of telling anybody that the likes of Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin and Jim Mora are above that. That’s the kind of crap Mark Helfrich has had to deal with, and it has done its damage.
And now – piling it on by both supposedly pro-Oregon media and Oregon fans certainly does not add positive energy to help meet the challenges of rebuilding. Unfortunately, many Oregon fans think they are helping effect a positive outcome by contributing energy to the ouster of the present coaching staff.
These fans know it all and don’t have the grace to say, “Rob Mullens and Phil Knight are more invested and better educated to make this sort of decision than I am, and they have better information than I do. They represent my school well, and I stand behind them, whatever they decide for the best of the program.”
That would certainly carry more confidence with recruits than the whiny BS coming from the torch-and-pitchfork crowd now. But for those who just can’t see it, congratulations on being wiser and better informed than the leader of one of the nation’s top ten athletic departments and a multi-billionaire sporting goods mogul.
3. Where the program goes from here. Regardless of who coaches Oregon in the near future, the present underclassmen will make up the nucleus of the team for the next two to three years. Many of the upperclassmen have already checked out, and the rest are soon to be gone.
With four freshmen starting on the offensive line, another at quarterback, and more contributing in the skill positions, the Ducks’ offense is well-positioned to rebound, especially as other schools start losing upperclassmen to the NFL. Justin Herbert will not be a true freshman throwing against Adoree Jackson forever.
Most of what’s happening that’s good on the defensive side of the ball is also coming from underclassmen, but it’s hard to be optimistic that this group will be formidable as early as next year. But what hope is there for improvement?
The defensive line has some good pieces in place working on maturing. Sophomore Jalen Jelks is a force when healthy. Sophomore Rex Manu (6’3″, 305), redshirt freshman Gary Baker (6’4″, 305) and true freshman Wayne Tei-Kirby (6’3″, 315) are gaining experience while underclassmen at other programs ride the pine. Having sophomores Justin Hollins and Canton Kaumatule healthy would add close to finishing touches on what should become a strong defensive front.
The Ducks have three true freshman linebackers who really should make their presence known with maturity. Converted 3-star safety Troy Dye is already arguably the team leader on defense. Add 4-star freshmen Keith Simms and La’Mar Winston and 4-star 2017 recruit Sampson Niu, give them a year or two, and the position group is looking sound.
For defensive backs, freshman Brenden Schooler leads the team with four interceptions, and was the nation’s best bargain at 2 stars. Sophomore Ugo Amadi and redshirt freshman converted running back Malik Lovette were both 4-star recruits. Redshirt sophomore Khalil Oliver is making some plays, and 4-star freshman Brady Breeze has to be chomping on the bit during his redshirt season. The 2017 recruiting class already looks to add two 4-stars and two 3-stars to the defensive backfield.
The bottom line is that despite the poor showing this year, the future isn’t as dim as many would have us believe. The upperclassmen – for reasons described above, along with no doubt a few others – have failed miserably to provide the upper-class strength needed for a team to excel. That was what was left over from the Kelly Era, which most Helfrich critics would argue extends through Mariota’s tenure.
The new guys are Helfrich’s guys. They show youth, but they’re looking pretty good. And, due to underperformance by those who came before them, they are getting experience that players on other teams are not. Give ’em two years, and they will kick butt.
Top photo by John Sperry
Disclaimer: Readers: Every writer on FishDuck.com is allowed to express their opinion in their articles. However, articles do not represent the views of the other writers, editors, coaching consultants, management, or the principals of FishDuck.com. Charles Fischer