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Loquacious ex-coach high on Ducks

EUGENE — Rick Neuheisel, the affable and astute former Pac-12 coach, has made a smooth transition from coaching to television.

Neuheisel has a unique insight into the conference, having coached 25 percent of the current programs — Colorado (1995-98), Washington (1999-2002) and UCLA (2008-11). He was nominated for a sports Emmy for his entertaining studio analysis on the Pac-12 Networks last season.

This season Neuheisel, who played quarterback for the Bruins, has a Jon Gurden-style quarterbacks show.

The Pac-12 Network’s talent, including new analyst Nick Aliotti, stopped by Oregon’s fall camp for a recent practice. Before moving the show on to Corvallis, Neuheisel provided The Register-Guard with his thoughts on the Ducks entering the 2014 season:

Question: How do you view Oregon’s program entering Mark Helfrich’s second season?

Neuheisel: It’s an interesting time for Oregon because they have built so much and their expectation level has gone so meteorically high that I think there’s a little bit of a risk of plateauing. What to do? If you study Nike, you look at how they keep reinventing themselves, right? How will that same marketing strategy play into this athletic department, and in particular the football program?

When Chip Kelly took over as coordinator under Mike (Bellotti), they went to this up-tempo stuff that really took people by storm. Because it wasn’t a two-minute up-tempo, it was rocket ship up-tempo. And defenses had a tough time staying up with it. Now almost 50 percent of football is doing the same up-tempo, maybe not at the same warp speed, but at least enough teams are doing it fast. It’s niche isn’t quite the same as it once was.

Now, ironically, Stanford is the niche team in this conference, because they’re the only ones who have a fullback. And so to get ready to play Stanford is more difficult than it is to get ready to play Oregon, at least schematically. How that plays itself out as guys like (Marcus) Mariota move on and so forth, they’ve proved they can recruit and certainly have much to recruit to, but that with the expectations … it will be interesting to see how they do it and if there is a quote, unquote, reinvention.

Question: What do you expect to see from Mariota this season?

Neuheisel: I think we all realize what happened when he didn’t have his legs. The offense suffered. They averaged 5 yards a carry almost every game, or more, except for Stanford when they ran for 2.6 in that game. To me, he just has to continue to be himself.

What will have to happen that is different for them than in years past is he’s going to have to be more of a coach on the field because he’s dealing with a lot of inexperience at the receiver position. This training camp will really be the most important one of his career because he’s now going to have to be the guy that provides leadership, which comes natural to him. He’s also going to have to be the coach that says, “I need you to slide into this window, I need you to give me a little bit of an indicator before I let the ball go so I know when you’re hitting that spot.”

Those guys haven’t played. They’ve got Keanon Lowe and that’s it, in terms of a guy that has any experience at the wide receiver position. That’s going to be a little bit of a challenge for him not to get frustrated when there are mistakes early in the season.

Question: The media picked Oregon to win the Pac-12. Do you agree?

Neuheisel: Obviously they’ve got a huge (nonconference) game against Michigan State, but they’ve got a better chance to beat Michigan State than Stanford did (in the Rose Bowl) because they’re going to make Michigan State be uncomfortable, in terms of having to keep up with what they do. Stanford did what Michigan State plays best against — in-the-phone-booth football. It will be an interesting contrast in that ball game. I expect Oregon to win it. When that happens they’re going to be considered among the favorites to be in the Final Four.

Question: If Mariota stays healthy and leads Oregon to a big season, will he be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in Pac-12 history?

Neuheisel: We’re talking about the Pac-12 quarterbacks, and there’s certainly a slew of them, but (Brett) Hundley and Mariota in their first games, they burst onto the scene. They didn’t ease in. … There’s no question if Oregon has another Pac-12 championship season, he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats.

Question: With Mariota returning, along with Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and all five starters on the offensive line, what is the offense capable of?

Neuheisel: It depends on where (offensive coordinator) Scott Frost and Mark Helfrich want to go with the offense. To me, they’re going to have to lean on the running game early as these receivers develop. When you have Marshall and Tyner, those are both really good looking backs. It reminds you of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. Those were both big-time players.

When you get that one-two punch and you add Mariota’s legs to the equation, you don’t have to throw. That will create much more box-heavy defenses, which creates seams for these kids to not have to be the great route runners and not have the great experience to get to places where Mariota can take advantage of them.

Question: How is Nick Aliotti going to do on TV?

Neuheisel: The guy is a natural. No one likes to talk more than Aliotti. The question is: Will there be enough air time for the two of us?

Question: What are you expecting from Oregon’s defense with Don Pellum in charge?

Neuheisel: I think it will be fine. It’s a little bit of an unfair question because Don loses three guys up front and that’s hard, especially when you want to play a lot of players on defense. You lose (Ricky) Havili-Heimuli, you lose Taylor Hart, you lose (Wade) Keliikipi. ... You can replace them with the kids coming in, (DeForest) Buckner and (Arik) Armstead are good looking guys, those guys can play. But who’s playing behind them, spelling them, that becomes the real issue.

Don Pellum is eminently qualified to do a great job. The one thing we don’t know, and Don doesn’t know, is how he’s going to react at halftime when it’s hitting the fan. Because as we all know, it does. That’s where you have to have the command presence, the innate security of, “This is what we’re going to do.”

You have to give everybody confidence in the room, assistant coaches and players alike, that we’ve got the answers and we’re going to execute. You don’t know until that happens. I didn’t know it when I got a head coaching job, Mark didn’t know it. You have to learn and grow.