When he was a high school football recruit being pursued by dozens and dozens of college coaches, Jeff Lockie had to learn quickly how to recognize something special.
He found it in his future position coach, Oregon offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Helfrich.
"If you don't like your position coach, it's probably not going to be a good fit," Lockie said Sunday, with less than three weeks left in a redshirt season spent studying under Helfrich. "I knew with Helf, he was a straight-up guy, honest, and definitely cared about my future."
For a coach whose contributions to the Ducks can seem somewhat murky — what exactly is the role of an offensive coordinator when Chip Kelly is head coach? — Helfrich sure seems to be recognized often by folks who matter, whether it's his players, his bosses or his colleagues. Oregon's quarterbacks say they love playing for Helfrich, the UO administration is so confident in him he has been tabbed as Kelly's eventual successor and Helfrich's colleagues recently voted him national quarterbacks coach of the year for the second time in three seasons.
That latter distinction was bestowed by the website FootballScoop.com, which annually honors a collegiate assistant at each position. In a vote by past winners — Helfrich himself abstained after winning in 2010 — the UO assistant was named the best quarterbacks coach in the country.
"How is it possible for Oregon to lose its Heisman Trophy finalist running back (LaMichael James) and replace a two-year starter at quarterback (Darron Thomas) and get better on offense?" FootballScoop.com editors wrote. "A well-oiled machine of an offense certainly helps, but the play of quarterback Marcus Mariota was also a major factor."
Under Helfrich's tutelage, Mariota led the Ducks to an 11-1 record and Fiesta Bowl berth against Kansas State on Jan. 3. Mariota is one of the few UO quarterbacks ever to throw for 30 touchdowns in a season, his 165.4 passer rating was sixth nationally after the regular season and his completion percentage of 69.9 is on pace to set an FBS freshman record.
"I was proud of him for what he did — take a freshman quarterback and make him first-team all-Pac-12, in a league that's known for quarterbacks and had some great ones," Kelly said. "I thought he did a great job."
It's easy at this point to recognize Mariota as a prodigious talent, preternaturally poised, and a perfect fit for the UO offense. He also had played just one season of football in the past four before this fall, yet handled himself like a veteran, showing off the sort of confidence that players say Helfrich is so effective at instilling.
"He's meant a lot to me and to my development," Mariota said. "He's done everything from helping me understand different reads and different things to being that kind of person I can go up to at any point of time in the day and talk to about anything. He's a really smart person; I've learned a lot from him. And I'm looking forward to learning a lot more from him."
Mariota should have that chance, despite the uncertainty about Kelly's future at Oregon — given Kelly's flirtation with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers last offseason, and the chance that several jobs in the league should be available this winter.
Helfrich had been tapped to replace Kelly had Kelly left in January, and the intention again is to execute that plan should it become necessary.
Sources have indicated UO administrators considered putting such a plan in writing this year. It didn't come to pass, though the sentiment remains.
"Hopefully there's enough trust and confidence with all the people involved that it'll hold together and play itself out," one source said.
Helfrich, for his part, had no comment on the subject when asked this week.
"I don't (have a comment), other than, everybody talks about it constantly," he joked. "I'm just doing my job."
For now, the Ducks are more than happy with the job Helfrich is doing in his current role. A Coos Bay native who starred at quarterback at Southern Oregon and spent 1997 as a graduate assistant with the Ducks, Helfrich made his reputation coaching quarterbacks such as Bart Hendricks at Boise State and Andrew Walter of Arizona State.
"He probably knows the position more than anyone I've met in my life," Lockie said.
As much as what he knows, though, is how Helfrich communicates it.
While he shares traits such as razor-sharp intelligence and meticulous attention to detail with Kelly, Helfrich's temperament is vastly different. As causticly witty and hyper-tense as Kelly can seem in interviews, Helfrich is as patient and earnest as anyone on the staff. With his players, too, Helfrich is a steadying influence.
"He does a good job of teaching you, correcting you, but also giving guys confidence, making them comfortable in meetings," Lockie said. "Things that allow him to reach out to you in ways that you'll listen."
Yes, Lockie insists, Helfrich can lose his cool at times — "every coach has to do that a time or two," Lockie said — but it's rare, because it's unnecessary.
Helfrich has other means of motivating his charges, means that have been universally recognized, and which could someday — perhaps soon — be put to use as head coach of the UO football program.