Oregon Ducks: Rich Brooks

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."

Thoughts on Mark Helfrich's promotion

January, 21, 2013
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Just about everyone inside the Oregon program has faith in Mark Helfrich, believes he can keep the Ducks among the nation's elite after he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach, replacing Chip Kelly.

After all, that's what Oregon did when Rich Brooks, the grandfather of the Ducks' national relevance, handed off to Mike Bellotti and when Bellotti handed off to Kelly. Helfrich is the third consecutive sitting offensive coordinator to be promoted, and the formula has yet to let the school down.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsA major key to Mark Helfrich being promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at Oregon -- system continuity.
For about a year, Helfrich was widely known as the heir-apparent to Kelly, and it was widely thought he'd ascend sooner rather than later after Kelly's flirtation with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year.

The profiles have mostly been written -- he's an Oregon guy through and through, a state native and a son of a former Duck. He's a lighter touch than Kelly. He's smart. His specialty is quarterbacks. He'll provide system continuity. And he'll retain most of the staff, one that is considered among the nation's best.

But now belief yields to actual day-to-day business results. Speculation will be replaced by performance: The signing of a recruiting class on Feb. 6. Spring practices. His first disciplinary issues. Deciding who calls plays.

Games.

The good news is he doesn't face the difficult career opener Kelly did, that regrettable evening at Boise State. Recall that shortly after that humiliating defeat and LeGarrette Blount meltdown, there was a sense of panic among some fans that Kelly was in over his head. Fair to say he wasn't.

Helfrich gets Nicholls State, then a Nevada team breaking in a new coach and a Tennessee squad doing the same. His Pac-12 opener and road debut is at Colorado. So the odds are high that he and the Ducks will be 4-0 and ranked in the top 5 -- top 3? -- when they head to Seattle to play their good friends, the Washington Huskies, in renovated Husky Stadium on Oct. 12.

Now, I don't want to blow you guys away with my local knowledge, but there could be some emotions surrounding that one. Washington looks like it has the personnel in place to make a move in Year 5 under Steve Sarkisian. Beating Oregon at home would feel transformative to Huskies fans. And to Ducks fans, though they will surely harrumph the notion.

The reality for Helfrich is one that no other Ducks coach faced before: Three losses is a bad season. Failing to win the Pac-12 is a disappointment. And Ducks fans are ready for their national title, if you please, Mark.

Helfrich now moves into the corner office in the Moshofsky Center. It's a big space to fill. No man has sat there who did any better than Kelly.

We suspect it will mostly be business as usual. But you only know when you know. Further, the true measure won't come in 2013. We'll only have a good idea of the Helfrich era if three or four years from now the Ducks remain atop the Pac-12 and ranked in the top 10.

Some links:
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The overwhelming sentiment at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the game will be Chip Kelly's last as the Oregon head coach before he fills one of the seven new NFL vacancies. If that is so, the equally overwhelming sentiment is that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will step into Kelly's spot atop the program.

Kelly, clearly anticipating the NFL questions, has fought off all inquires on the matter by saying he is only focused on the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday. He has emphasized that the NFL talk is not a distraction to him or his team, and that he and his players have not addressed it.

His players have been on message, too.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsMark Helfrich was a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, before joining Oregon in 2009.
Said linebacker Michael Clay: "He doesn't talk about it. No body talks about it."

And offensive lineman Kyle Long: "There isn't really a lot of talk about that. You can control what you can control. What we can control is our attitude, our effort and our preparation."

And quarterback Marcus Mariota: "Whatever happens, happens. Coach Kelly will make a decision that is best suited for him. Whatever he does, this team will support him."

And center Hroniss Grasu: "He's our head coach right now. That's the only way I can look at it. I will play for whoever is our head coach right now. Right now, it's Coach Kelly. I won't look too far ahead."

As for Helfrich, he also is staking out a "wait-and-see" position: "I don't think [Kelly leaving for the NFL is] a slam-dunk like everyone else does. I hope he stays at Oregon forever," he said.

It's important to note there have been no concrete reports of contact with NFL teams, and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said he's received no courtesy calls from an interested NFL team. It's plausible -- and very, very Chip Kelly -- that Kelly's non-denials emerge from his enjoyment in making the media awkwardly tap dance in front of him.

Still, if Kelly's departure is just days away, it is reasonable to get an early measure of Helfrich, who has been a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado -- he was the Buffs' offensive coordinator, too -- before Kelly hired him in 2009.

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Kelly said of why he made Helfrich his first offensive coordinator. "He brought a different perspective to our staff, because he had a different background. He wasn't a spread guy. I wanted to bring someone in who wasn't going to tell us what we already knew."

When asked what advice he'd give to Helfrich if he became a head coach, Kelly said he'd give him the same advice Rich Brooks gave Mike Bellotti and Bellotti gave him: "Be yourself. You can't be someone else."

Which is interesting in itself, because Helfrich is different than Kelly. Very different.

"Coach Kelly is the yin and he's the yang," Ducks senior running back Kenjon Barner said. "Coach Kelly is on you. He knows what he wants and he's going to get it out of you. Coach Helf is kind of that guy who brings you along smoothly, rather than rough. Good cop, bad cop. Sometimes they switch roles."

That said, continuity is a big reason to promote Helfrich. Oregon has a team culture, system of practicing and schemes on both sides of the ball that have been working fabulously over the past four years with Kelly. Helfrich wouldn't be expected to change much. Further, he'd likely be able to retain some of the Ducks' staff because Kelly probably will need to hire veteran NFL coaches to offset his lack of professional experience.

Still, Helfrich, as Kelly would advise, is unlikely to transform into a Kelly clone. He's worked with a number of successful coaches, so he'd likely put his own stamp on existing systems.

"You take a little bit of everybody with you," Helfrich said. "I've learned a ton from Chip."

While some players seemed -- for obvious reasons -- uncomfortable with the topic, there was a strong undercurrent of support for Helfrich, and not just with offensive players.

"He's a great guy and knows what he's doing," linebacker Michael Clay said. "Everyone respects him on the team and around the league. I think he'd do a great job as a head coach."

Helfrich is certain to be a head coach at some point. The big question to be answered after the Fiesta Bowl is whether that ascension is just days away.
Nick Aliotti, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif., a graduate of Pittsburg High School, a former freshman MVP at running back for UC Davis, arrived at Oregon as a graduate assistant in 1978 under Rich Brooks. The Ducks celebrated his arrival by going 1-10.

After a 4-7 season the next year, Oregon State coach Joe Avezzano hired him to coach running backs. In 1984, he was the offensive coordinator at Chico State. The Ducks went 6-5 that year.

Funny how things turn out. Back then, there was little to suggest Aliotti would become a defensive coach, or that he would circle back to Oregon, or that there would be any reason to go back to Eugene. After all, if Aliotti wanted to climb the coaching ladder, didn't he want to go to a place where you had a chance to win?

Yet here he is, now close enough to an Oregon lifer that we're going to call him that, a guy who has been a firsthand witness to a program rising from nothing to respectability to legitimate goodness. And then to the cusp of greatness.

[+] EnlargeNick Aliotti
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWhile Oregon's offense gets all the hype, Nick Aliotti's defense has also shined this season.
"I'll tell you how it feels for me personally," Aliotti said. "It feels fantastic."

And anyone who knows Aliotti, 58, will guess that there was a prelude to that quote -- "It's not about me" -- and a postlude -- "It's really, really special" -- as well as some entertaining parentheticals along the way.

Yet this season includes something new: respect.

Aliotti has been a good defensive coordinator for a long time, although his defenses often were outmanned. During the Ducks' rise under Chip Kelly, Oregon has played better defense than most folks realized, but it often required observers to look behind the numbers. And who has time for that?

Yet before this season began, more than a few pundits, including folks on the benighted East Coast, took a look at the Ducks' depth chart and noted that there were some salty characters on the mean side of the ball. The Ducks had some size to go along with their speed. There were some 300-pounders inside and there was, as coaches say, "great length" across the board, with seven of the top nine defensive linemen over 6-foot-4. And four over 6-6.

They passed the sight test.

What about the football part of football? Glad you asked. ESPN's numbers guy, Brad Edwards, took a closer look at the Oregon defense this week, noting that if you go beyond some superficial numbers that don't look impressive, you can make a case that the Ducks are playing defense on par with the finest teams in the country.

He took a measure of the Oregon defense only when an opponent was within 28 points, noting, "Using only statistics from when the score is within 28 points allows us to evaluate how teams perform when the starters are on the field and playing with maximum intensity."

What did he find? First, he found the Ducks have allowed 19 touchdowns this season -- one a pick-six against the offense -- but only seven were given up when the game margin was within 28 points.

Then he entered that into his Bat Computer.

Here's what he found. The Ducks ranked third in the nation, behind only Alabama and Notre Dame, in points per drive at 0.89. The Ducks allow just 4.03 yards per play, which ranks fourth in the nation. The Oregon defense leads the nation in red zone TD percentage at 22 percent, or four TDs allowed in 18 drives. Finally, on third-down conversion defense, the Ducks rank second, trailing only Oregon State, with a 24.7 percent success rate.

Not bad, eh?

Aliotti's defense, however, will face a major test on a big stage Saturday when it visits USC. Although the Trojans' offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this season, it still has all the main players from the squad that turned in a scintillating performance a year ago while ending the Ducks' 21-game Autzen Stadium winning streak with a 38-35 victory.

"Those great receivers and the quarterback were able to have their way with us last year," Aliotti said. "They beat our defense last year with their offense."

Matt Barkley completed 26 of 34 passes for 323 yards with four touchdowns as the Trojans rolled up 462 yards. Marqise Lee, then a true freshman, caught eight passes for 187 yards and a score. Aliotti, by the way, was perhaps more upset about the Trojans' 139 rushing yards than the passing numbers.

Barkley is a four-year starter who has seen just about every defense. He's not easy to fool. But that doesn't mean Aliotti isn't going to try.

"The best I can answer is we're going to do a little bit of all of it," he said.

And Aliotti has a lot of tricks in his bag. When you talk to opposing offensive coaches, it's clear the Ducks' defense has evolved in the past few years. Calling it "multiple" doesn't do it justice. You could almost call it "nonstandard." Aliotti will give a general idea of the evolution, but he doesn't want even that to appear in print.

USC coach Lane Kiffin coached the Trojans' offense under Pete Carroll from 2001 to '06. He sees dramatic changes.

"You see no similarities," he said. "You'd think it was a different staff. Obviously it's not; they've been there forever. I don't know what changed, but they are very different. They are very multiple. They change fronts. They disguise things very well."

Aliotti has played a lot of chess games with opposing offenses since he returned to Oregon for good in 1999. Shutting down Barkley and the Trojans on Saturday would help him further secure his grandmaster bona fides this fall.

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