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Ducks gear up for second practice week

EUGENE — In three weeks, Oregon will have started Mark Helfrich’s fourth season as coach with Matt Lubick and Brady Hoke debuting as coordinators against UC Davis.

The Ducks aren’t quite ready for the grind that follows the Sept. 3 opener — facing 11 consecutive Power 5 opponents in the regular season — but Helfrich is pleased with how the first week of fall camp went, considering the reconfigured staff is breaking in a handful of inexperienced players at key positions.

“The coolest part about it is there’s so many similarities, but they’re completely different,” Helfrich said after Saturday’s practice when asked if this year’s camp was divergent from others he has experienced. “The voices are different, the guys are different, the maturity level of your team is different.

“We’re a very young team, and a lot of guys are learning a bunch of stuff. We were kind of joking out there that we’re doing Football 101.”

The coaching staff spent time working on fundamentals through the first six practices and accompanying afternoon walk-through sessions. The Ducks got physical, too, with a competition day on Friday and some live hitting Saturday.

The players got some rest Sunday before getting back to work. Position battles, most notably at quarterback, will be under the microscope during Oregon’s first scrimmage today.

Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen are the clear front-runners to replace Vernon Adams Jr. as the starter, but teammates have been raving about how competitive Terry Wilson and Justin Herbert have been as true freshmen.

Helfrich hopes to decide on a No. 1 about 10 days before the season kicks off.

“At some point you have to get into the game-planning mode, and there are differences. They don’t do everything exactly the same all the time,” quarterbacks coach David Yost said. “There would be things that Dakota does that you would lean on if he’s the guy, and there are things that Travis does better that you would lean on that way.”

Royce Freeman won’t participate in the scrimmage so younger skill players can get more action.

Even though the offense is loaded at wide receiver (Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford, Charles Nelson), running back even behind Freeman (Kani Benoit, Taj Griffin, Tony Brooks-James) and tight end (Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis, Johnny Mundt), true freshmen like Dillon Mitchell and Tristen Wallace are making strong cases to get some touches in Lubick’s version of the blur offense.

“At least once or twice every practice a quarterback throws a bad ball and a receiver goes up and makes it look like a great throw,” Prukop, a Montana State graduate transfer, said of the upgrade in skill around him at Oregon. “They really make our job easy, and I think there’s a whole new level of maturity in the room from spring ball. Especially having guys like Dwayne Stanford back, there’s a little extra sense of maturity, and that’s a great thing to have in that room.”

The development of young players, highlighted by redshirt freshmen Jake Hanson, Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton, has been encouraging for offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, who must replace three seniors from last year’s group.

On the other side of the ball, Hoke is rotating in a bunch of big bodies looking for the right fits for his 4-3 scheme.

“We want to be physical,” Hoke said. “One thing with coach Greatwood, I’ve known him a long time and he coached D-line for a while, so when we want to do some inside drill and pod work, which we need a lot of, he’s all for it. It helps both of us.”

Helfrich said improved depth at linebacker should lead to better special teams play. Oregon struggled covering punts last season.

The secondary, which had a tough time replacing Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Erick Dargan last fall, is now the strength of the defense with two or three viable contributors competing at all four positions.

“At this stage of the year, I’m preaching confidence and expecting confidence because they have played,” secondary coach John Neal said. “The lesson is to play better. I take a lot of the blame last year for some of the breakdowns we had and misjudging some players’ abilities and playing guys before they were ready. That was my fault.”

The Ducks, despite lower outside expectations, still have a swagger about them after getting through the first week of fall camp.

But not even Helfrich can predict how the team will perform until the season is underway.

“We have a lot of young talent. Sometimes it’s explosive for us and sometimes it will be explosive to the opponent,” Helfrich said. “How you react to that in a game situation is something that you won’t know until you’re there, whether it happens great or happens not-so great.

“How they respond is huge. You try to train for that as much as possible, but invariably a guy is either too over-the-top ecstatic or too in the tank.”

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is pleased with how the first week of practice went, considering the many new pieces in the system. ANDY NELSON/EUGENE REGISTER GUARD