EUGENE, Ore. — Chip Kelly may have left Oregon to try his breakneck offense in the NFL, but he left it in great shape.
The Ducks, who finished last season ranked No. 2 in the final AP Top 25 poll, shouldn’t stagnate under new Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, the team’s offensive coordinator who is obviously acquainted with the speedy spread-option.
Oregon finished 12-1 last season and defeated Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Ducks’ flashy offense averaged 49.5 points per game last season, second in the nation, and was among the top five in rushing (315.2 yards per game) and in total yards (537.4 yards per game). Oregon was adroit on defense, too, allowing just 21.6 points a game and topping the nation with 40 takeaways.
While stars Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, John Boyette and Kenjon Barner have all moved on to the NFL, Oregon is still rich with talent, including quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas.
Helfrich is the first to say he’s not going to mess with success:
“The most important thing is all of our guys believe in our program and we don’t look at it as someone replacing someone, we look at it as the ‘next guy up,’” Helfrich said. “And as I’ve said, if the guy that followed John Wooden quoted him every once in a while, would that have been that bad?”
Despite Kelly’s departure, the Ducks were selected to again finish atop the Pac-12 this season by the media who cover the league. Oregon opens the season on Aug. 31 at home against Nicholls State.
Here are five things to know about Oregon as the season arrives:
1. DE’ANTHONY’S ROLE? — Thomas is listed as a running back on the depth chart, but as anyone who has watched him knows, he’s just as good at receiver. Which one would he rather play? Thomas says he’s fine with both. Where will he see more time? Thomas isn’t saying. Last season 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. He was the first Oregon player in 47 years with a touchdown four different ways. For every 9.2 times he touched the ball, he scored.
2. LEADERSHIP ABILITY — Sophomore quarterback Mariota is ready to add “leader” to his resume, a year after he won the starter’s spot as a redshirt freshman. Mariota set the team’s single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, five rushing, one receiving). He passed for 2,739 yards, completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes and was the first freshman named to the Pac-12’s all-conference first team in 23 years. “I have really high expectations for myself as well as this team,” Mariota said. “So I’m going to really push myself as a leader to help these guys — as well as myself — to get where we want to go.”
3. NEW DIGS — This season Oregon opened its new football performance center, the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, to rave reviews from the team. The lavish facility adjacent to Autzen Stadium houses a locker room with showers lined in Italian tile, a team auditorium with seats upholstered in the same leather Ferrari uses, and a 25,000-square-foot weight room with Brazilian hardwood floors. The building was privately funded by Oregon alum and Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, and the original plans estimated it at $68 million, a figure that is apparently conservative compared to the actual cost. “It’s an eye-popper. You have to see it to believe it,” said cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
4. TYNER TIME — The most anticipated newcomer to the Ducks is home-state standout Thomas Tyner, who rushed for 3,415 yards for Aloha (Ore.) High School as a senior, setting a new single-season rushing record for the state. On his 18th birthday last September, Tyner set a state record with 643 yards rushing and scored 10 touchdowns in an 84-63 victory over Lakeridge High School. It was the third-most ever for a prep player, behind John Giannantonio’s record of 754 yards in a game for Netcong High School in New Jersey in 1950, and Paul McCoy’s 661 yards rushing for Matewan High School in West Virginia in 2006.
5. SETTLED SANCTIONS — The Ducks are no longer under the cloud of NCAA sanctions that had hung over the program for more than two years while Oregon awaited its fate. 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 for recruiting violations. The Committee on Infractions said 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.
•Predicted finish in conference: First in the Pac-12 North.