How does a program react to a historic season that includes a win in the inaugural College Football Playoff, a Pac-12 Conference championship and a Heisman Trophy?
“Initially, a lot of tears,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said, referring specifically to the way the Ducks’ 2014 campaign ended: with a 42-20 loss in the College Football Playoff championship round to Ohio State.
“A lot of emotion with a really special team,” he added. “That was a team that was unbelievably close, and a lot of great people that will never be together again...When you get that close, with that group, it's certainly more emotional."
There is more sweet than bitter for Oregon to take away from 2014: Marcus Mariota winning the Heisman, Helfrich claiming the Pac-12 title and the Ducks’ 59-20 thrashing of defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl are all program-defining moments.
But the championship game loss to Ohio State is the last memory Oregon made heading into the 2015 season, giving the program something on which to marinate for the eight long months between the playoff’s end, and September’s start to a new season.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Helfrich said. “We’d certainly like to have that problem every year.”
Having that problem of playing in another national championship game this season hinges on Oregon replacing several key pieces from last year’s “special team.”
Mariota is the most obvious: a three-year starter who smashed Duck records, running the offense for which the program has become synonymous with expertise.
The man Mariota played behind – center Hroniss Grasu – was integral in the Ducks' offensive line becoming more physical last season, after a heavily scrutinized 2013. Grasu and tackle Jeff Fisher were both selected in last weekend’s NFL Draft, along with All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who missed the College Football Playoff with a torn ACL.
Oregon isn’t just replacing talented playmakers. The departing corps featured the Ducks’ emotional leaders, which explains the scene Helfrich described immediately after the title game.
Ultimately, however, the 2015 Ducks were afforded very little time to lament their losses.
“It’s different, new…in that the [national championship] game was considerably later not just on the calendar, but just how our academic calendar falls,” Helfrich explained. “It also affects your weight room and everything [when] you go through that phase in winter. Some adjustments had to be made.”
Winter term began at the University of Oregon on Jan. 5, and the national championship game was played a week later. For Helfrich and his staff, the next month was dedicated to finalizing the 2015 recruiting class.
Spring practices — which just ended last Saturday with the intrasquad scrimmage—opened on March 31.
The Ducks haven’t had much chance to breath, so the coming lull before fall camp begins in August is the first significant opportunity for Oregon football to take stock of its successes in 2014, and how it can possibly be improved upon in 2015. Jumping right back in with the Ohio State game still fresh could be a blessing for the Ducks. Helfrich said Oregon’s coaches used the shortcomings and successes as teaching tools the same way they would any other game.
Then, once those lessons extracted and applied in practice, Helfrich said of the next step: "Flush it."