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Change is in the air

Mark Helfrich understandably tried to keep almost everything the same after replacing Chip Kelly as Oregon’s coach.

After all, the Ducks were 46-7 (.887) over four spectacular seasons under Kelly, which included an appearance in the BCS national championship game, two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl.

Helfrich is 33-8 (.805) entering his fourth season running the program with an appearance in the College Football Playoff championship game and two trips to the Alamo Bowl. After last year’s unsatisfying 9-4 finish, capped with the epic collapse against TCU, Helfrich made significant changes to his coaching staff.

Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke will attempt to fix the Pac-12’s most generous defense as a first-time coordinator.

Wide receivers coach Matt Lubick was promoted to offensive coordinator, replacing Scott Frost, who left after the regular season to become the head coach at Central Florida. Former Missouri offensive coordinator and Washington State assistant David Yost was also brought on by Helfrich to develop the Ducks’ quarterbacks.

“We’ve had a very eventful offseason,” Helfrich said at the Pac-12 media day event. “Brady Hoke obviously taking over our defense, it’s been great from a staff chemistry standpoint, the players’ buy-in and how that went this spring. …

“(Yost) did a great job kind of questioning a lot of the things that we do and why we do it and how we do it, which I think kind of validated a bunch of things that we do and why we do them. We also tweaked a few things and polished a few things that we changed a little bit.”

For the first time since the Pac-12 expanded and added a championship game, Oregon was not picked to win the North Division. The media voted the Ducks third in the preseason poll behind defending champion Stanford and rival Washington.

When Oregon opens fall camp in one week, the first order of business for Helfrich, Lubick and Yost will be sorting out the quarterback situation.

Montana State senior graduate transfer Dakota Prukop, redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen and true freshman Terry Wilson are vying for the starting position.

Under Frost, Oregon produced the FBS passing efficiency leader the last two seasons in 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr. in 2015.

Running back Royce Freeman, who has rushed for 3,201 yards and 35 touchdowns in two seasons, said Jonsen is a worthy challenger to Prukop, who was also courted by defending national champion Alabama.

“Travis made a lot of progress from the first time I saw him. He’s gotten more confident,” Freeman said. “Dakota is probably establishing that confidence. He’s around a new group of guys.

“The great thing is he has all this time from now until the season that Vernon didn’t get to establish himself and vocalize leadership and things like that.”

Freeman enters his junior season 1,881 yards shy of LaMichael James’ Oregon career rushing record.

Lubick and running backs coach Gary Campbell also want to make sure Taj Griffin, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, who all averaged over 7 yards per carry last season, remain involved in the offense.

Despite losing Tyler Johnstone and Matt Hegarty from the offensive line, Helfrich believes the unit will continue to be a strength.

Left tackle Tyrell Crosby is an intriguing NFL prospect, and redshirt freshman Jake Hanson could be a four-year starter at center. Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood believes in his young players, as well as veterans like Cameron Hunt and Doug Brenner.

“I think our offensive line is a little bit like our receiving corps was two years ago, when nobody knew who anybody was but we were excited,” Helfrich said. “We’re going to need seven, eight, nine of them to show up and play great, and we expect them to.”

The Ducks remain loaded at wide receiver with the return of starters Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford. True freshman Dillon Mitchell was the star of the spring game, and the dynamic Charles Nelson moved back to offense after playing safety last fall.

“Charles, he’s my roommate, so I listen to him a lot. I listen to what he wants, his goals and everything like that,” Freeman said. “We’re going to use him, especially him being a veteran and the special player that he is. The more touches he gets, the more chances we have to make plays.”

Devon Allen will leave for the Olympics on Tuesday after winning the NCAA championship and U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in the 110-meter hurdles.

Following his exhibition race at the TrackTown Summer Series last Friday, Allen said he still plans to rejoin the Ducks before the start of the season, which kicks off Sept. 3 against UC Davis.

“We’re very excited about that position, and obviously we would love to have Devon back just to solidify everything with everything he brings to the table,” Helfrich said.

Hoke is facing a daunting challenge in remaking the Oregon defense, which ranked 116th in points allowed (37.5 ppg) and 117th in yards allowed (485.3 ypg) last season.

Don Pellum was reassigned to linebackers coach shortly after the Alamo Bowl. Hoke began transitioning the unit from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base in the spring.

“What happened last year, that’s my fault. It’s not (Pellum’s) fault,” Helfrich said. “I knew he would be great about it and professional and all those things, but what he did blew me away, as far as his passion to sell Brady Hoke in the recruiting trail. I mean, there needs to be a sociological study done on how great that was.”

The defense must replace six regular starters from last year’s front seven, including Pac-12 defensive player of the year DeForest Buckner.

Henry Mondeaux will be the leader of the defensive line, and former five-star recruit Canton Kaumatule will have a chance to be a breakout star if he can stay healthy. Austin Maloata is the projected starter at nose guard. Torrodney Prevot will be counted on at defensive end in the new scheme.

“DeFo, obviously defensive player of the year in the Pac-12, was a force for us,” senior linebacker Johnny Ragin said. “But we have young, athletic, big, capable defensive linemen in Henry Mondeaux, Jalen Jelks, T.J. Daniel, Torrodney Prevot. We have a lot of guys that are capable of making those plays. Now it’s their opportunity to show it.

“We have kind of a young defense, not too many seniors on that side of the ball, but it’s our opportunity to step up and show we’re a good defense.”

Oregon will replace graduated linebackers Rodney Hardrick, Tyson Coleman and Joe Walker with a largely unproven group of upperclassmen that includes Ragin, junior Jimmie Swain and junior college transfer A.J. Hotchkins.

John Neal’s secondary is coming off a painful season. The now experienced crew of Tyree Robinson, Arrion Springs, Chris Seisay, Reggie Daniels and Juwaan Williams expect to lead a dramatic turnaround.

“Hopefully they’re playing with total confidence, passion, speed, commitment to our scheme,” Helfrich said of the defense. “For whatever reason, that never totally 100 percent clicked last year.”

Walk-on placekicker Aiden Schneider was awarded with a scholarship after making 91.7 percent of his field goals (22-for-24) and earning third-team All-American honors last season. Punter Ian Wheeler also returns for his third season with a career-average of 39.5 yards on 97 attempts.

With a potential Heisman candidate in Freeman, the Pac-12’s deepest collection of skill players and the addition of the accomplished new assistants, the Ducks have a rare opportunity to exceed outside expectations.

Oregon plays two Power 5 opponents (Virginia, Nebraska) in September and hosts both Stanford and Washington for key North Division games at Autzen Stadium.

“Since my first day at Oregon, the first game at Oregon against Boise State, everybody wrote us off for dead back then and have done it every single year, every single recruiting cycle, every single spring since then,” Helfrich said, referring to the 19-8 loss at Boise State in the 2009 opener, which was Kelly’s debut as head coach.

“That’s great. We can’t focus on that, we can’t live that way. We have to make sure that we’re watching enough film to come out and have a great fall camp.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter @rgduckfootball . Email ryan.thorburn@registerguard.com .