New Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has talked to predecessor Chip Kelly a bunch of times since Kelly bolted to the NFL.
Kelly’s advice? “Be yourself,” Helfrich said.
Luckily for Ducks fan, when it comes to running a football program, there’s not much difference between the new coach, an affable Oregonian, and the old one, a wise-cracking New Englander.
“If I can be known as the guy who kept winning after Chip Kelly, I’m good with that,” Helfrich said.
The 40-year-old Helfrich is taking over after four seasons as Oregon’s offensive coordinator under Kelly, who left in January to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kelly’s Ducks went 46-7 overall and played in BCS bowl games in each of his four years, including an appearance in the national championship game against Auburn in 2011. Oregon finished 12-1 last season, beat Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, and wound up No. 2 in the final AP Top 25.
Kelly’s trademark was the development of a breakneck spread-option offense. His goal was to get a play off in 12 seconds, as efficiently as possible. Helfrich’s signature became his development of Oregon’s quarterbacks, and he was key to bringing along Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota, the Ducks’ current starter.
Last season — as just a redshirt freshman — Mariota set the team’s single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, five rushing, one receiving), surpassing the previous mark of 36 held by Thomas (2011) and Akili Smith (1998).
The first freshman named to the Pac-12’s all-conference first team in 23 years, Mariota passed for 2,739 yards, completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes. He had 3,429 yards of total offense, second only to Smith’s 3,947 in 1998.
When training camp opened this week, Mariota said not much has changed now that Kelly’s gone.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of difference from a football standpoint,” Mariota observed. “Coach Helfrich has always said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
Other players agreed.
“I think it’s going to be as explosive as it’s always been. We’re not going to miss a beat at all,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “Up front we have two guys at guard we have to replace but I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. We have plenty of talent.”
The media that cover the Pac-12 selected Oregon to claim the top spot in the league’s North division as well as win the conference championship. Just like last season.
The Ducks return eight starters on offense and seven on defense.
Joining Mariota on the offense is junior De’Anthony Thomas, an explosive playmaker at both receiver and running back who scored every 9.2 times he touched the ball.
Thomas ran for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 45 passes for 445 yards and five more scores. He also scored on a kickoff return and a punt return, becoming the first Oregon player in 47 years with a touchdown four different ways.
Thomas hinted there may be a few tweaks of offense, or a “little more flavor,” as he put it.
Helfrich, a native of Oregon, is the third straight offensive coordinator to be promoted to the top job, following Kelly and his processor, Mike Bellotti. He is an unassuming guy, in marked contrast to Kelly’s frequent sarcasm and sometimes brusque demeanor.
“They’re just different in the way they deliver their messages, really. Different personalities,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “Nothing’s really changed football-wise. Practice and schemes and all that stuff is the same. But the way they talk to us and interact with us is a little different.”
The Ducks are no longer being dogged by speculation over NCAA sanctions over the school’s use of recruiting services. Earlier this summer, the NCAA stripped Oregon of a scholarship in each of the next two seasons and placed the program on probation for three years.
The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions said in its final report that Kelly failed to monitor the program for its improper involvement with Willie Lyles and his Houston-based recruiting service. Oregon also faces reductions in paid visits and evaluation days, but avoided some of the harsher penalties handed down to other programs in recent years.
Kelly was hit with an 18-month show-cause order, a sanction that likely will have zero impact now that he’s coaching the Eagles.
The sanctions had been hanging over the football program for more than two years, and there had been fears that Helfrich’s tenure could be opened under tough penalties.
Now Helfrich can focus solely on the task at hand. And perhaps build a legacy of his own.
“Chip is a great friend of mine and we will be for a long time and he’s going to have success in the NFL, but we’re different guys and we walk differently and talk differently and that’s fine,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do what we’ve done from a program standpoint. How we recruit is a little bit different, but we’re going to continue to be innovative, attack, and get better in every facet of our program, every year.”
Oregon opens the season on Aug. 31 at home against Nicholls State.