On Tuesday morning, spring practice for the Oregon football team began, and with it the dawn of a new era for the program.
No longer is Chip Kelly running the Ducks, or their offense. Now at the helm is Mark Helfrich, who has promised that almost every change to the program under his leadership will be subtle.
Among the most intriguing to watch will be how much — if at all — Oregon's offensive philosophy evolves. The Ducks became one of the nation's most dominant rushing teams during the Kelly era, but there are reasons to anticipate a shift.
Start with Helfrich's background: He's a former college quarterback, and coached the position as an assistant. Helfrich was Arizona State's QB coach in 2002 when Andrew Walter set an Autzen Stadium record with 536 passing yards, and with the Ducks he was named national quarterbacks coach of the year in both 2010 and 2012, by footballscoop.com.
Helfrich's staff also includes that website's receivers coach of the year for 2012, Matt Lubick from Duke, who has the added title of passing game coordinator with the Ducks.
Add to that a roster that boasts an emerging star in quarterback Marcus Mariota, a veteran group of receivers and tight ends but a lack of depth at running back, and might the stage to be set for the Ducks to open up the offense in 2013, throwing down the field more than they have in years?
"My background has always been throwing the ball a little more," Helfrich acknowledged. "But we're going to try to score. We're not making any drastic changes to the offense."
He's been adamant about that since becoming head coach. But he also wouldn't want to tip his hand, were there indeed significant changes in store.
It seems a statistical certainty that the Ducks will throw more often in 2013. The only question might be how much.
THAT KELLY WOULD emphasize the run at Oregon was apparent from the get-go. His first season as offensive coordinator, in 2007, Oregon ran for a school-record 3,272 yards, a number the Ducks would exceed four times over the next five years.
But even by Kelly's standards, 2012 was extreme.
The Ducks averaged 315.2 rushing yards per game, first of all, surpassing 300 for the first time.
Ignoring that a small percentage of called pass plays break down and end up as runs, Oregon had 686 rushes and 373 passes last fall. That was a whopping 64.8 percent runs, the Ducks' highest percentage in 30 years. And 58.7 percent of Oregon's total offense — 4,098 of 6,986 yards — was produced on the ground, again the most since 1982.
The 1982 Oregon team is notable because it was the last before the arrival of quarterback Chris Miller and offensive coordinator Bob Toledo, who ushered the UO offense away from power option football into a balanced, pro-style scheme.
"It truly was a run-first, pass-second offense," said Mike Jorgensen, Oregon's leading passer in 1982 and a longtime radio analyst for the Ducks. "And the offensive line was also built for that type of offense — drive-blocking, moving people, a very run-oriented type of offensive line."
Oregon in 2012, then, rushed as much as the last UO team built to run the football almost exclusively.
WHILE THE DUCKS were a run-heavy offense in 2012, they didn't lack for explosiveness. Oregon led the nation in rushing plays of 20 yards or more, with 43.
In the passing game, though, the Ducks weren't as explosive. Their 37 pass plays of 20-plus yards ranked 75th, and they were one of 25 teams without a completion of 60 yards or more.
Oregon's leading receiver in 2012, all-purpose back De'Anthony Thomas, averaged 9.9 yards per reception. Since 1958, only two other players have led the Ducks in receptions while averaging fewer than 10 yards per catch, running backs Kevin McCall in 1984 and Sean Burwell in 1992.
With Mariota taking over at quarterback as a freshman, and senior running back Kenjon Barner rushing behind a veteran line, there was good reason to emphasize the run anyway. But situations dictated play-calling at times, too — nearly half of Oregon's rushing yards, 1,922 of 4,098, came with the Ducks leading by 15 or more points, by far the most in the country, and more than 800 yards ahead of the No. 3 team, Texas A&M (1,118).
Kelly wasn't one to run up the score, and he was careful about pulling his starters as early as possible, which limited Oregon's production. Helfrich sounds inclined to do the same — assuming the 2013 Ducks are close to as dominant as the 2012 team.
"I'll be watching a game that's 40-something to seven, and their starting quarterback and tailback are in the game," Helfrich said. "That's a tough gamble some of the time."
Unlike the 1982 team, however, the 2012 Ducks weren't built solely to run. When Cal contained Oregon's rushing on Nov. 10, limiting the Ducks to 180 yards, Mariota responded by throwing for 377.
"When I was at ASU in the secondary (as safeties coach from 2007-09), they would do a hell of a job throwing the ball against us," Lubick said. "Because we put so much time and effort into stopping the run, because they have another runner back there, a quarterback who can run. A lot of teams don't have that.
"So every defensive scheme you call, you have to account for him — which takes a lot of practice. Not to mention the speed, the tempo, all that stuff? It takes away from the way you cover passes."
Other than the Cal game, the Ducks weren't often particularly inclined to throw much in 2012. A notable exception was just before halftime of the Fiesta Bowl, when Oregon was trying to score with a minute left.
That possession, Jorgensen said, could be a sign of things to come in 2013.
THE DUCKS HAD struggled somewhat to establish their offense in the first half against Kansas State on Jan. 3. That changed on their final possession, when they went 77 yards on five plays, including completions of 23, 17 and 24 yards.
As far as Oregon's offense was concerned, that could be considered attacking deep down the field. If the Ducks open up the passing game in 2013, it probably won't mean lots of 50- or 60-yard bombs — the offense isn't built to protect the quarterback long enough — but it could mean more medium-range strikes like the two passes to tight end Colt Lyerla on that Fiesta Bowl drive.
"He was running routes right down the middle of the field, or right down the hashmarks," Jorgensen said. "I could see more of that, where you're stressing the linebackers — who stay often at the line of scrimmage because they're so focused on the run — it allows your slot guys to get in that zone between the linebackers and the deep safeties."
Lyerla is just one of several veteran weapons on hand to help the passing game in 2013. The receiving corps features senior Josh Huff and junior Keanon Lowe, and there are some intriguing young targets, too, in B.J. Kelley, Chance Allen and Dwayne Stanford, guys with the size and speed to stress defenses deep.
At running back, meanwhile, the Ducks have lost LaMichael James, Barner and several transfers in the past two years, leaving Thomas and Byron Marshall as the lone scholarship players this spring.
And then there's Mariota, still just a sophomore, yet a guy Jorgensen said sees the field as well as any Oregon quarterback since Joey Harrington. Mariota nearly set a school record for pass efficiency in 2012, and he made a dramatic leap after five games in September; he had 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 152.74 rating in the first month of the season, and 21 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 171.10 rating after that.
"To me, there's no reason why you wouldn't put more of the offense, and the passing game, on his shoulders," Jorgensen said.
While Jorgensen said that he could "see them stretching the field a little more with those receivers," he also said the running game will still be "the foundation of what makes this offense successful." Rather than about 60 percent of the offense coming via the rush, it could be closer to 55 in 2013, Jorgensen predicted.
That would be significant. In Kelly's six seasons, the Ducks passed at least 40 percent of the time just once, in 2007.
"We say we're going to be a 50-50 team going in," Helfrich said. "And sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn't."
SPECULATION THAT OREGON will lean considerably more on the pass in 2013 overlooks the fact that the new offensive coordinator is Scott Frost, who quarterbacked a power option team at Nebraska.
And yet, "I think all arrows point that direction," Jorgensen said.
For him, the key to the Ducks' success under Kelly wasn't so much about how well they ran — or passed — the football, but how often they did so. By minimizing the time between snaps, Oregon ran more than 1,000 plays for the first time in 2007, then did so again in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
"The production of this offense is the speed they ran it at," Jorgensen said.
Will throwing more in 2013 make the Ducks even more dangerous, or better fit the players and coaches on hand? If Helfrich and staff believe so, there's so reason to admit as much.
But of all the interesting elements to the Kelly-Helfrich transition, that will be among the most watched in 2013.