Mark Helfrich takes over for Chip Kelly in Eugene.
When Mark Helfrich was promoted to replace Chip Kelly as Oregon's head coach in January, the native Oregonian called it "the opportunity of a lifetime."
The Ducks' athletic director, Rob Mullens, was similarly effusive about the move, which makes Helfrich the third straight UO head coach to be promoted from offensive coordinator. "We gathered a lot of input," Mullens said. "And fortunately for us it all pointed to one person, and he happened to live right here in this zip code."
For as much as Helfrich's credentials — born and raised in the state, former graduate assistant with the Ducks, ready and willing ambassador for the program — differ from Kelly's, he was hired for the sake of continuity. Helfrich needs to continue Oregon's run of four straight BCS appearances to truly be deemed an instant success. It would help to get the Ducks back into the Pac-12 Championship after they failed to qualify in 2012, and there's more than enough returning talent to think Oregon should be able to reach its second BCS championship game in four years.
Lofty expectations for a first-year coach? Most certainly. But with Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota back to run one of the nation's most explosive offenses, and all but four members of the defensive two-deep returning as well, the coaching change has done nothing to temper expectations in Eugene.
Kelly was seen as something of a revolutionary in the college game during his time in Eugene. His offense played at a frenetic pace, his practices were conducted at a fever pitch, and the system of play calling he developed to accommodate that tempo was adopted by no less than the New England Patriots. But Helfrich was a trusted advisor, orchestrating details behind the scenes that made Oregon's system fit for a race track, rather than a traffic jam.
Among the biggest questions after the change was whether Helfrich, and his new offensive coordinator Scott Frost, would prove as daring as Kelly in their play calling. In the last four years, Oregon has led the nation in two-point conversions, and has been among college football's most aggressive teams on fourth down. Oregon tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Tom Osborne was on the UO staff when Helfrich was a graduate assistant in 1997, and coached with him again at Arizona State before they were reunited in Eugene in 2009. Osborne foresees little change in the Ducks' philosophy. "Aggressive play-calling?" he said. "I don't see it changing at all."
One element that seems certain to change, if only slightly, is Oregon's run-pass balance. In 2012 the Ducks ran the ball more often, and for a higher percentage of their total offense, than they had in 30 years. With Mariota throwing to a veteran group of receivers and tight ends in 2013, that figures to change. But Helfrich's pedigree could be a factor, too. He's a former dropback passer at Southern Oregon University who was a quarterbacks coach in his four previous jobs prior to being named Oregon's head coach. The stadium record for passing yardage at the Ducks' Autzen Stadium is 536 yards by Andrew Walter of Arizona State in 2002 — with Helfrich as his position coach.
There was one noticeable change for the Ducks during Helfrich's first spring — Kelly was a yeller, while Helfrich is not. Following the first practice in April, Mariota was noticeably hoarse. "Now you don't have that extra voice," Mariota said. "I was trying to be that, and it kind of caught up with me."
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti chose his words carefully in describing Helfrich's "softer touch," perhaps owing to the fact he's a married father of two, where as Kelly was the rare bachelor among the head coaching ranks nationally. Aliotti's called differences between the two "the one million dollar question."
"Everything's been the same," Aliotti said. "They're just two difference personalities out there. As far as how they conduct practice, as far as what we want to get done, you wouldn't even notice a change."
One area in which Mullens would probably prefer a change is in his head coach's public persona. Kelly could be outwardly antagonistic of media, and cut back dramatically on his interactions with boosters. “That’s part of the job,” Helfrich said. “We’re going to do our best to make everybody feel involved.”
And he hopes to be doing so for a long time. “Coaching at Oregon is the pinnacle for me,” Helfrich said. "This is a special place to me. We talked about a lifetime contract; was not able to get that done, but maybe we’ll earn that here down the road.”
Written by Rob Moseley for Athlon Sports. Visit our online store to order your 2013 Pac-12 preview to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 Pac-12 season.
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