Oregon begins football practice with high hopes
EUGENE — Oregon conducted the first practice of the highly anticipated 2014 season on Monday behind closed doors.
The outside expectations for the Ducks — the media’s preseason Pac-12 favorite and the No. 4 team in the first Amway Coaches Poll — leave little margin for error after fall camp breaks.
Mark Helfrich, who had an 11-2 debut as a head coach but was unable to lead Oregon into a BCS bowl game as Chip Kelly had the four previous seasons, understands the situation quite well entering his second year running the program.
“Were we perfect last year? Absolutely not. Were we miserable? Absolutely not,” Helfrich said during a media day press conference at Autzen Stadium. “It doesn’t matter if it’s on the last kick of the national championship game or losing two games last year how we did, as soon as you lose one game then everything is up for debate.
“That’s great, that’s fine. As long as our guys trust our process, believe in our culture ... everything takes care of itself.”
Marcus Mariota’s return gives the Ducks a belief that they can finish the season in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Oregon was 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the polls last season but went 2-2 in November as Mariota gutted it out on a partially torn MCL.
“Injuries happen. We’re not going to let my knee be an excuse for what happened last season,” Mariota said when asked if the Stanford and Arizona defeats might have been different had he been healthy.
“All we can do is learn from it and get better.”
Despite having experience spread throughout the roster, the coaching staff has plenty of teaching to do over the next three weeks with 40 newcomers in the program, including 27 true freshmen.
“The first practice is always really fun to watch because there’s a lot of guys really energetic and excited to go, but quite a few guys who aren’t really sure what they’re doing,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said after Monday’s session.
“It’s a mix of veteran guys that look great and some young guys that run completely the wrong direction some. But that all gets ironed out pretty fast.”
The team has welcomed another quarterback in Georgia Tech transfer Ty Griffin of Powder Springs, Ga. The 6-0, 191-pound freshman will sit out this year while practicing with the Ducks and waiting for his talented younger brother, Taj Griffin, an Oregon verbal commitment at running back, to arrive in 2015.
Outside linebacker Johnny Ragin, who transferred from California last winter, has filed a hardship appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility hoping to contribute at a spot where the Ducks could use some depth.
“There’s some good and some bad in that realm, but we’re not supposed to talk about it like it’s some Jason Bourne state secret,” Helfrich said. “He’s another guy that we’re very excited about. The young linebacking crew is a great looking group of guys.”
Left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who suffered a torn ACL during the Alamo Bowl win over Texas, has been cleared by the medical staff and is still confident he will be able to play in the opener 25 days from now against South Dakota.
Bralon Addison, who tore an ACL during spring practice, isn’t ruling out a late-season comeback. In the meantime, Dwayne Stanford, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington and other young targets say they’re ready to take the torch from Josh Huff.
Oregon returns all five starters on the offensive line, including all-America center Hroniss Grasu, but there is a wave of talented backups ready to push them.
“I don’t think we’ve been this deep, certainly at receiver, in a long, long time. Right now they’re names on the board, and we think they’re going to be good. Now we go out and compete,” Helfrich said. “Same thing for the offensive line. We have a lot of guys who have played, but there’s nobody etched in granite up there.
“Those guys have to go out and compete every day.”
The defense is embracing Oregon’s “blue-collar” theme, which includes workout T-shirts with blue collars, as Don Pellum enters his first season coordinating the unit.
The Ducks return leading tackler Derrick Malone, sack leader Tony Washington and all-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
“Guys like Derrick, Tony and Ifo have stepped up so far as being leaders and vocalizing their leadership more, which is necessary when you have a bunch of young guys,” said junior outside linebacker Tyson Coleman, who is competing for the starting spot occupied by Boseko Lokombo last year. “I feel like those guys so far have done a great job of being leaders and getting us ready. More than anything, they’re good role models.”
Helfrich said “tweaks” should be made every year with regard to scheme or player development in an effort to keep evolving as a program.
Oregon begins this season with a better head coach than it had last year.
“I learned a ton, I learned a million things,” Helfrich said. “As I’ve said many times, if you do something a second time you should be better and you should be more efficient. There’s no exception with me.”