Oregon, Which Plays at Nebraska This Fall, Not Ducking High Expectations
LINCOLN — If a person on a computer heads to the homepage of Oregon football, the first thing that pops up is a picture of No. 8, ball tucked in his right arm, running into the future.
“MARIOTA, HEISMAN,” are the words over the picture.
And then, after a few seconds, the graphic of Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota moves downward, making way for news about the current Ducks team, which holds its spring game Saturday and plays at Nebraska in September.
It’s a clever marketing trick by the school’s web crew, but also a reminder of Oregon’s high standards at quarterback.
“There’s an extremely high standard here and expectation here of how that position is supposed to play,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said this week on the Pac-12 teleconference.
Seen another way, it’s almost a distant memory. The program has changed since December 2014, when Mariota coasted to the Heisman and delivered the team to the College Football Playoff, capping a five-year run that included a 60-8 record, two Rose Bowl wins and two trips to the national title game.
The Oregon team that serves as Nebraska’s marquee home game on the 2016 schedule still boasts talent, speed and a diverse, dizzying offense. But other aspects of the program are different.
Obviously, Mariota is gone. So is the quarterback who replaced him, Vernon Adams. So is the offensive coordinator-quarterbacks coach who coached them both — Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who took the Central Florida head coaching job this offseason. And so is Oregon’s trademark 3-4, two-gap defense, replaced by new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke’s more aggressive, blitzing, one-gap scheme.
Also gone: Just a little bit of the shine on Oregon’s program. A rocky 2015 — in which the Ducks were 9-4, and somehow watched a 31-0 lead turn into a 47-41 loss to TCU in the Alamo Bowl — is the reason. So is a defense that gave up 485.3 yards and 37.5 points per game, and an offense that couldn’t automatically put every defense in a blender.
That prompted the hiring of Hoke, who hasn’t coached in the Pac-12 in more than 20 years and matches the West Coast hipster vibe about as well as steak at a vegan restaurant. Hoke had to replace the team’s best pass rusher — DeForest Buckner, who went in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night — while trying to acclimate his team to a new playbook.
“The whole message of one-gap defense has taken a little longer than I would have hoped,” Hoke told reporters in Oregon this week.
A one-gap defense tends to be more aggressive, since each front-seven defender has his own gap, attacks that gap and puts more pressure on the offense to react. Hoke said he wants his cornerbacks to better understand their responsibilities in man-to-man coverage, as well.
“We’re playing faster at times, and then there’s times when we have to have more consistency,” Hoke said.
Said Helfrich of Hoke: “He’s everything to be expected — demanding and a disciplinarian and, at the same time, a player’s coach. A guy who immediately shows he cares about the guys and cares about people and then, at the same time, can really be demanding. That’s been a great balance.”
On offense, Oregon returns one of the nation’s top running backs in Royce Freeman — who rushed for 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns last season — and several talented receivers, including Darren Carrington (32 catches, 609 yards, six touchdowns), Dwayne Stanford (30 catches, 463 yards, five touchdowns) and Charles Nelson (17 catches, 270 yards, three touchdowns). Nelson, also a defensive back, is a two-way player.
The Ducks do not yet have a starting quarterback. Adams, a transfer from Eastern Washington, battled through injuries last year, sparkling when healthy. When hurt, replacement Jeff Lockie wasn’t up to snuff. Adams got hurt in the Alamo Bowl, which sparked TCU’s comeback.
Lockie spent part of spring experimenting with playing wideout, and he is not expected to be the starter this year. Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop — who plays a bit like Adams — and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen — whose lanky build (6-foot-3, 194 pounds) echoes that of Mariota — are the primary candidates. Also in the mix is Terry Wilson, a true freshman who enrolled early. Wilson was briefly committed to Nebraska before flipping to the Ducks.
Helfrich, on the teleconference, said his quarterbacks are a work in progress.
“A couple guys are thoughtful perfectionists,” Helfrich said. “They’ll over-analyze the situation and think about the result way before it happens. Then the play’s over and they’re two clicks behind in terms of timing. It’s like any position: Make a full-speed mistake with good intentions, and we’ll figure the rest out. We’re going to push them. We’re going to try to play better than we ever have at that position. But that might look differently than Marcus breaking an 80-yard run.”
Oregon wants its quarterback to be part point guard and part playmaker, Helfrich said, and the key is knowing when to embrace each role. He’s hired quarterbacks coach David Yost to help with that development. Yost isn’t the offensive coordinator — that role goes to Matt Lubick — so his job is specifically coaching up the signal-callers. Yost previously coached at Missouri, where he mentored Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert.
In a brief press conference with reporters, Prukop said he’s starting to pick up better on the fast-paced, no-huddle offense.
“Things just started flowing and I just felt much more comfortable and confident in the offense,” said Prukop, who amassed 3,822 total yards and 39 total touchdowns in his junior year at Montana State. “I could see the signal one time and get the play and just know it. I didn’t have to sit there and watch the signal over and over.”
On the injury front, Oregon has enough healthy players, Helfrich said, to conduct a standard spring game.
“It will resemble American football,” Helfrich said.