The first eight games of the Mark Helfrich era were nearly perfect. Oregon was undefeated, ranked in the top five of the polls and had scored at least 50 points six times. Marcus Mariota was the leading Heisman Trophy candidate and was on the verge of setting a Pac-12 record for consecutive passes without an interception.
Then Oregon went to Stanford and completely melted down — due in large part to a mysterious injury to Mariota’s knee. Two weeks later, with control of its own Pac-12 championship destiny, in Tucson against Arizona, Mariota threw an interception for the first time in over a year and the Ducks got run out of the building in hideous fashion against a team that finished with a losing record in league play.
Needless to say, Helfrich took over a Rolls Royce program with massive expectations and had chances to deliver. But he didn't.
With Mariota back and, more importantly, healthy, expectations for Oregon are sky high (no pun intended) once again in Eugene. Nine starters are back on offense and five return on defense while the most critical game of the year (Stanford) will take place in the not-so-friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.
Before all of that can happen, however, Helfrich needs to execute the second spring camp of his tenure. Replacing key departures at defensive tackle, safety and wide receiver as well as all-purpose weapon De’Anthony Thomas must be addressed this spring.
Oregon Ducks 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: April 1
Spring Game: May 3
Three Things to Watch in Oregon's 2014 Spring Practice
Life without Nick Aliotti
On a team loaded with elite offensive weapons at quarterback and running back, not to mention the entire offensive line returning, spring practice should be focused on the defense. First and foremost, the team must get acclimated to Don Pellum now running the defense after spending the last 15 years under the guidance of Nick Aliotti. Pellum has been with Oregon since 1988 in some capacity and has been the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator since 2000. He will need to fill voids at defensive tackle and safety in particular while trying to work in a host of extremely young, highly touted prospects. Additionally, Pellum needs to establish himself as the leader in an effort to make the transition a smooth one.
Plug up the middle of the D-line
Taylor Hart was a second-team All-Pac-12 pick, Wade Keliikipi was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and Ricky Havili-Heimuli played critical minutes in 12 games. All three defensive tackles have moved on from this roster and Pellum's first order of business is to find some run stuffers up front. Arik Armstead was a five-star prospect who has shown loads of potential while getting snaps in 13 out of 14 games a year ago. It is time for him to make his mark along the D-line. The same goes for Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp, both of whom should figure heavily in the rotation in the trenches.
Build around IEO
The good news in the secondary is that All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu decided to come back to Eugene and that means Pellum can largely ignore one half of the field. And it should make replacing both Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson at safety and Terrance Mitchell at corner a little bit easier. The safety duo combined for 151 tackles a year ago and both Patterson and Mitchell constantly found himself around the ball. Much like Armstead, safety Erick Dargan and cornerback Dior Mathis have loads of talent and will be asked to step into starring roles. Others like Issac Dixon and Reggie Daniels will have an opportunity to prove their mettle this spring as well. In a league stacked with elite signal-callers and relentless offensive coaches, stabilizing the back end of the Ducks' defense around one of the best corners in the nation should be a key this offseason.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 10-12
The Ducks have one of the best rosters in the nation and arguably the best quarterback in college football. The backfield is stacked, the offensive line is loaded and the young talent on defense should develop quickly despite the loss of Aliotti. So targeting a Pac-12 title, Rose Bowl and/or a playoff spot should be the expectation level for Oregon. The schedule is fascinating, however, as the Ducks will host one of the most intriguing non-conference games when Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State comes to town early in the year. The Ducks ease their way into conference play and, frankly, get a nice crossover draw from the South. A trip to UCLA on Oct. 11 is tough but both Arizona State and USC are noticeably absent from the slate. Additionally, getting both Stanford and Washington at home could be the difference between another Alamo Bowl berth or a trip to the national championship game.