Oregon bulking up in offseason
EUGENE — They're not going to change the nickname to the "Bulk Offense."
But the Ducks, who have piled up a lot of points and wins in recent years on the football field by doing things faster than the opposition, made adding more muscle to their frames a priority over the winter.
That was obvious as the University of Oregon players emerged from Tuesday's closed-door practice, the first of 15 spring football sessions.
"We're the biggest, the fastest and the strongest we've ever been," coach Mark Helfrich said. "Now we have to turn that into functional football skill. "¦
"We tweaked a little bit of our offseason program. To this point it's been successful. You want to get through a spring healthy and physical. Translating that weight room strength to football strength is always a key."
The philosophy for fall Saturdays has not changed. Oregon plans to push the pace with 10 starters, including likely Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota, returning for Scott Frost's second season coordinating the blur offense.
However, the stinging 26-20 loss to Stanford last Nov. 7 did spur change in the weight room.
Members of the offensive line led the iron (pumping) revolution after the Cardinal controlled the line of scrimmage and shoved the Ducks out of the national title picture for the second consecutive season.
"We just had too many little boy-looking figures on this team," said left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who has added 15 pounds since the Dec. 30 Alamo Bowl while also rehabbing a torn ACL. "Everybody kind of realized that, and we kind of snapped out of our haze. I think it was after the Stanford game we were all like, 'We could have beaten these guys, but straight up we need to be bigger.'
"And everybody kind of adopted that and worked hard in the weight room."
There was also plenty of motivation on the other side of the ball during the offseason. First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum made sure last season's starters understood their positions were not guaranteed and challenged backups and younger players to show up for spring drills ready to compete.
Arik Armstead, a talented junior defensive tackle, is emerging as a leader after leaving the basketball team in January to focus on the football team's strength and conditioning program.
"It definitely helped me get in the weight room more, trying to get stronger. It helped a lot," Armstead said. "A lot of guys are talking about getting stronger and getting bigger for the bigger teams. I think when it comes to Stanford and teams like that, it's just a mentality that you're not going to let nobody beat you. When it comes time for the games, that's the mentality we've got to have."
Mariota was listed at 211 pounds entering the 2013 season as a redshirt sophomore. After throwing for 3,665 yards, 31 touchdowns and four interceptions, the star quarterback went home to Hawaii to heal up before hitting the workouts hard with his teammates.
After Tuesday's practice, Mariota said his injured knee was fully mended by mid-January and that he is running as fast as ever on the practice fields at 218 pounds.
"I think the biggest takeaway from last season is we have a lot to learn," Mariota said of the 11-2 campaign, which concluded with the non-BCS bowl victory over Texas. "From, I think, getting a little complacent in the middle of the season, just kind of battling through some things. As a team, I think we've learned. We're pretty young I would say, and we've kind of learned and grown up a little bit."
And bulked up.
Armstead, who Pellum needs to have a breakout season up front with the losses of Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi, was 280 pounds entering his sophomore season and is now listed at 296.
Senior linebacker Derrick Malone, the defense's leading tackler last season, went from 212 to 220 pounds.
Even affable all-American center Hroniss Grasu isn't quite as cuddly as he used to be.
"I can't wrap my arms around Hroniss when I'm hugging him," Mariota quipped. "They did an awesome job this offseason when they were working out. They were doing the extra stuff from the first day that they got back. "¦
"I think a lot of us felt like physically we needed to kind of up it a little bit. That first starts in the weight room. Guys were motivated to just kind of get bigger, and hopefully hang onto the weight and still be fast. The motto around here is still be as fast as you can be. At the same time, we want to be able to be big and shoulder that weight a little bit."