EUGENE — If the goal was to be a head football coach by age 40, Mark Helfrich did it.
Yet that was never the goal, not when he was growing up in Coos Bay or coaching at Boise State, Arizona State or Colorado.
"I have never been a guy who said I want to do this by this age or that by that age or have this title by that stage," Helfrich said. "I have been very lucky everywhere I have been, working with and for great people and being in great places. I am very lucky and fortunate to be in the position I am in now, and we are going to work every day to earn it."
The work on the field began Monday when the 39-year old Helfrich, a former quarterback for Southern Oregon University, led the Ducks through the first day of fall camp just over six months after he was hired to replace Chip Kelly. Helfrich is the third straight head coach at Oregon elevated from offensive coordinator, the position he held the past four seasons as Oregon reached a BCS bowl game in each year.
That is the goal again for the Ducks, who were picked as the Pac-12 Conference favorite by the media and ranked No. 3 in the USA Today poll by the coaches.
Oregon returns 16 starters, including nine on offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, the first-team, all-conference quarterback and freshman offensive player of the year who threw 32 touchdown passes and ran for five more. He has his top six receivers from last year returning, including De'Anthony Thomas, who could take on a bigger role in the running game after the departure of Kenjon Barner.
Seven starters are back on defense, including the entire secondary. However, three all-conference defenders are gone, including defensive end Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins.
There are less than four weeks until Oregon opens the season at home against Nicholls State on Aug. 31.
"I get excited this time of year regardless of my position," Helfrich said. "The anticipation of seeing young guys develop and newcomers that you have not seen on the field in person, that's exciting."
Helfrich kept most of Oregon's coaching staff in place as he promoted Scott Frost to offensive coordinator and replaced Frost with Matt Lubick as wide receivers coach. Ron Aiken takes over as defensive line coach for Jerry Azzinaro, the lone assistant who left for the Philadelphia Eagles with Kelly.
"I have a great bunch of guys that I trust a lot as coaches," Helfrich said. "That takes a lot of pressure off."
Helfrich made his first national appearances as the new face and spokesman of the program last month when he visited ESPN for a day and then arrived at Pac-12 media day with quarterback Marcus Mariota and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
"That is one of those things that is part of the deal, to talk about Oregon football,"Helfrich said. "There is a ton of national interest. It was good to be around the other Pac-12 coaches and any time you get a chance to hang out with Marcus and Ifo and guys on other teams like them, it is a great podium to get that done."
Helfrich wrapped up his first offseason as head coach, which was a different experience.
"A lot of it was moving into the new building, one-time things that will not have to be done in the future," he said. "I was dealing with a lot of different stuff. Guys recommended I should get out of the country with no cell reception, but I still had great family time, I made time for that."
Things will fall into place if:
Oregon keeps beating the teams it has been beating. Stanford is the only opponent on Oregon's schedule that has beaten the Ducks since 2008.
Marcus Mariota can stay healthy. When Bryan Bennett transferred after last season, that left freshmen Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie to likely battle for the back-up job before they have ever play in a game.
The media is right about Oregon once again. The Ducks were picked to win the Pac-12 in the media poll, which has correctly picked the winner in 11 of the past 13 seasons, including the Ducks in 2001, 2010, and 2011.
Disaster could strike if:
The kicking game struggles again in the clutch. Oregon's lone conference losses the last two years were by three points against USC and Stanford with the Ducks missing a late field goal in both games.
The coaching staff has trouble adjusting to new roles after four years of continuity. Helfrich will coach on the field for the first time in more than a decade while Frost is an offensive coordinator for the first time.
The Ducks can't find an "anchor" at tailback, as Helfrich described it. LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner carried the load at running back during Chip Kelly's four seasons. Byron Marshall, De'Anthony Thomas and Thomas Tyner have 234 combined carries in college, fewer than Barner had just last season.
Their time is now:
At Pac-12 media day, Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports asked Ekpre-Olomu which Duck would have a breakout season and he said "Tyson Coleman. His ability is ridiculous." The Lake Oswego native had 34 tackles as a reserve during his freshman year, but could start at linebacker as a sophomore.
Boseko Lokombo may be a starter at linebacker for the first time as a senior, but he has made the most of his opportunities to get on the field the past three years. Lokombo has 108 career tackles, but even more impressive, he has four touchdowns on two interception returns, a fumble recovery, and a blocked punt.
For the first time in four years, Jackson Rice won't be handling the punting duties and it looks like that responsibility will go to Dylan Ausherman, a junior-college transfer from College of the Sequoias who sat out a redshirt season last year.
At kicker, senior Alejandro Maldonado has made 10 field goals in the past two seasons, but he has also missed eight kicks during that time so he is expected to have to battle freshman Matt Wogan, a true freshman from North Carolina, for the job.
At backup quarterback, freshmen Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie, who arrived at Oregon in the same recruiting class and sat out a redshirt season, will likely compete to be No. 2. In the spring game, Lockie was 22-for-28 for 217 yards and two touchdowns while Rodrigues was 13-for-19 for 165 yards and two scores.
At linebacker, junior Derrick Malone started in place of an injured Michael Clay last year against Washington and had a career-high six tackles. He could replace Clay on a full-time basis this year, but sophomore Joe Walker is also in the mix after transferring from junior college in time to compete in spring drills.