In this weeks installment of Five Questions, Five Answers, we tracked down long-jump specialist Andrew Greif, the Oregon Ducks beat writer for The Oregonian. You can follow him on Twitter here and find his work online at OregonLive.com. Many thanks for Andrew for taking time to do this.
1. This is Year 2 of the Mark Helfrich era. Obviously, much of the offense is the same as it was under Chip Kelly, but is there a better sense now of what makes Helfrich’s style unique?
On Wednesday, I asked cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu about the difference in styles, and he put it this way: Mark Helfrich is more likely to sit down and hang out with a player in the cafeteria than Chip Kelly. But that’s only an interaction a player will see and I think it’s fair to say that to many on the outside — fans and media alike — there isn’t much of a discernible difference in style. By statistics, the only meaningful difference on offense is that Oregon throws the ball more often than it did under Kelly, whose offenses were powered by its running backs. That’s up to quarterback Marcus Mariota now. Then again, I’m not sure Oregon really wanted a change in style when they hired Helfrich, who hasn’t strayed from what worked for so long under Kelly, be it formations or mantras such as “Win The Day.”
2. What were Ducks’ biggest breakdowns in the loss to Arizona two weeks ago, and did how well did they correct those in the win at UCLA last week?
The breakdowns were in pass protection (allowing five sacks) and an inability to get off the field on defense (9-of-17 on third downs, plus five first downs via penalties). A side note to the pass protection was a curious choice not to move Mariota out of the pocket, and away from Arizona’s blitzes, as it had with success against Washington State. After the loss, offensive coordinator Scott Frost hinted that Mariota wasn’t fully healthy, though Mariota downplayed that soon after. The corrections were dramatic against UCLA. The Bruins earned zero sacks thanks to the return of senior left tackle Jake Fisher (leg injury) and couldn’t pressure Mariota, who was back to being a moving target on rollouts and runs. The defense wasn’t terrific on third downs, allowing 11-of-19 but compensated with forcing UCLA into a fumble and an interception deep in its own territory.
3. The Ducks still lead the Pac-12 in rushing — as they have every year since 2006 — but they’re doing it now with a 229-pound true freshman as the featured back. Is there a different feel to that rushing attack now with Royce Freeman? How has he held up?
Freeman has held up well, in part because he appears to be carved out of marble. He makes sophomore Thomas Tyner, a “bigger” back at 215 pounds, look like he’s still in high school by comparison. But he’s also held up because Oregon is rotating him, Tyner and junior Byron Marshall (who is experimenting more as a wideout this fall in the slot), which lessens the wear-and-tear on each. Freeman has had problems running timidly early and coaches have implored him to run harder all the time, to better take advantage of his strength and speed, and it appears he’s taking notes: Last week he became Oregon’s first 100-yard rusher this season by gaining 121 yards with two touchdowns at the Rose Bowl.
4. Marcus Mariota had perhaps his best game at Husky Stadium last year. What has stood out about him so far this season? And will he finally leave for the NFL after this season?
Mariota said this week he hasn’t made up his mind about whether to forgo his senior season or not, but those who actually believe he’ll return are in a minuscule minority. In the offseason Oregon’s coaches challenged him to improve in three areas: vocal leadership, footwork and ball security. His footwork changes have been apparent because he doesn’t sail passes downfield as often. He has the seventh-highest completion percentage in FBS (69.7) to prove it. With just 10 career interceptions he’s never been one to force passes, so for ball security the only real area for him to get better at was limiting fumbles — he typically breaks the pocket with the ball unprotected in one hand. Against Arizona, he had two fumbles this way and Mariota said Thursday he must get better there. And so, too, in his vocal leadership. Mariota has the game of a No. 1 pick but the persona of a walk-on, and even though he’s been better at raising his voice and communicating encouragement or a play call, he’ll never be considered demonstrative in that way.
5. Nick Aliotti is gone and another longtime Oregon assistant, Don Pellum, is in as the defensive coordinator. What has that meant for the UO defense?
Much like how Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost haven’t outwardly changed a whole lot about the offense, Pellum hasn’t revolutionized Oregon’s 3-4 scheme. It’s not exactly a surprise, after he spent the spring ensuring fans he’d retain Aliotti’s hallmark devil-may-care blitzing. However, where Aliotti’s defense last season was carved up by powerful running games late in the season, the soft spot in Pellum’s group is in pass defense. The Ducks, who lost three starters in the secondary, rank 81st in passing efficiency defense.
Here’s a Q&A I did about the Huskies with Greif.