Even without Kelly, Oregon aims for No. 1

March, 4, 2013
3/04/13
10:41
AM ET
On Jan. 4, Oregon, fresh off its second consecutive BCS bowl victory, was at an all-time high. Then, while riding that wave of emotion, it watched Chip Kelly transformed into Hamlet -- "To go or not to go, that is the question..."

Kelly was certain to leave for the NFL before he wasn't. And then -- poof -- he was gone, off to coach the Philadelphia Eagles. Hey, a guy can change his mind.

If Kelly had stayed, the big spring and fall question for the Ducks was what do they need to do to make the proverbial next step. Seeing that they had finished ranked No. 2 in 2012 and played for a national title in 2010, the singular step that needed to be taken was winning a national championship.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Bruce SchwartzmanEven with Chip Kelly's departure, the Oregon Ducks are still in pretty good shape with talented starting quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Kelly knew this and thought about it a lot, though that's not the sort of thing he'd admit. While Kelly always preached laser-like focus on the task at hand, let's just say that he didn't turn away from a TV set when Alabama was playing. He knew the team -- and the conference -- that needed to be overcome.

Now, with Kelly cracking wise at reporters on the East Coast, the question becomes slightly less ambitious and more general for the Ducks, who open spring practices on April 2: Can new coach Mark Helfrich & Co. sustain what Kelly built?

Of course, anybody who has paid more than passing attention to the Ducks of recent vintages knows exactly the three-word phrase that will meet all such inquiries: Next man in.

The program is -- wisely, most believe -- following a formula that has worked before. Rich Brooks begat Mike Bellotti, who begat Kelly, who begat Helfrich. That pattern would seem to position well new offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who was elevated from receivers coach. Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich each was the Ducks' offensive coordinator when he was promoted to the corner office.

Still Frost, who knew how things would fall if Kelly bolted, felt an ambivalence during Kelly's NFL flirtation and eventual elopement.

"It was just an interesting ride," Frost said. "I think all of us were a little bit torn on the whole thing. We've had such a great amount of success here that part of us didn't want to see anything change. We wanted to keep it status quo and see how long we could do this thing. Everybody loved Chip and how the program was running. But at the same time, change is inevitable, and it's given me and some other guys more opportunity and responsibility."

The hand Helfrich and Frost inherited is pretty darn strong. The Ducks have 16 starters returning from a 12-1 team, including eight from an offense that ranked second in the nation -- first among AQ conference teams -- with 49.5 points per game. Topping that list of returning starters is quarterback Marcus Mariota, a short-list Heisman Trophy candidate.

Still, it's not unreasonable to think some players might be shaken at Kelly's departure. After all, he had a pretty big personality.

"During our time here, we've lost players people didn't think we could replace and our message has always been it's the next man up. Do the job," Frost said. "It would have been hypocritical of us not to treat [Kelly leaving] the same way. We're approaching it the same way we ask the players to approach it when we lose a key piece. Step up, do your job and go forward 100 miles an hour."

Along that very line, Helfrich and Frost well know that one of their chief tasks is sustaining the culture around the program. While the coaches need to be themselves and not try to ape Kelly, it does help that Kelly took only one full-time assistant with him to Philly -- D-line coach Jerry Azzinaro. There's plenty of continuity, both in terms of scheme and the day-to-day operation, procedures and philosophies of the program.

"The culture is already built," Frost said. "It isn't like we have to start from the bottom. We're excited about that. We'd be fools to try to change much at all because of the success we've had."

The same goes for Frost now coaching quarterbacks. It's long been a position of strength for the Ducks, and Mariota might be the most talented player the Ducks have ever had at the position, at least since Joey Harrington, circa Y2K. There was little Mariota didn't do well in 2012, when he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors as a redshirt freshman, ranking seventh in the nation in passing efficiency.

"I think we can clean some things up and be even more efficient," Frost said. "There are some things we want to tweak to help him have more of an opportunity to impact the game. We wouldn't trade him for anybody. We think he can do some amazing things and win a lot of games. We're going to feature him as much as we can."

The Ducks' offense under Frost won't change, but it will evolve. For one, there's good reason to believe Oregon will throw more in 2013, with Mariota and his entire cast of receivers back.

And, as good as the offense was last fall, it did have a bad game -- a 17-14 home loss to Stanford.

"I give Stanford credit," Frost said. "That game kept us out of the national championship game. There's always room to fix things and get better."

Oregon's improvement on defense -- a combination of scheme and talent -- has bolstered it as a national contender. The question that looms among Oregon skeptics is whether the Ducks' offense can roll up big numbers against a big, fast and well-prepared defense. Like Stanford. Like Alabama.

To find out, the Ducks first need to solve Stanford, a team they'd taken to the cleaners the previous two years.

The word in Eugene, post-Kelly, Spring I? Change is good. Of course, there are plenty of things many are going to miss with Kelly no longer around.

Offered Frost: "I could make some sarcastic remarks to you if you want me to."

Ted Miller | email

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