Pac-12 preview: Oregon

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

EUGENE, Oregon -- There is a new head football coach, but the same expectations at the University of Oregon.
Mark Helfrich was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach when Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles after leading the Ducks to four straight BCS bowl games. The Ducks are expected to make it five straight BCS games this year after they were picked as the favorite in the Pac-12 media poll and ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls.
"Expectations are great, we want expectations," Helfrich said. "Guys are kind of used to the noise, whether it is a big bowl game, a big regular-season game, high expectations, hype, all that is awesome. It is where you want to be, where you want to coach."
Oregon returns 15 starters from last year, when it went 12-1 to finish second in the final USA Today poll.
"I have really high expectations for myself as well as this team," sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "I am trying to push myself as a leader, help these guys and myself get to where we want to go. I am really looking forward to it, an exciting time of the year."
Oregon's three-year run as conference champions was snapped last year by Stanford, but the Ducks are the pick to move back to the top of the conference. Only defending champion Alabama and Ohio State are ahead of Oregon in the USA Today poll.
"We feel we are one of the top programs in the country, but we don't compare ourselves to anyone," sophomore defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. "We focus on how we can get better, what things we can do in our control to remain one of the top teams."
Mariota is back after racking up 3,431 yards of total offense and 38 touchdowns as a freshman. He has come a long way in a year.
Going into last season, he was a relative unknown as the first freshman to start the opener at quarterback at Oregon in more than two decades. Now he enters his sophomore season as a Heisman Trophy candidate after earning first-team All-Conference honors while being named the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.
Mariota emerged as one of the nation's top dual threats when he threw for 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns while also running for 752 yards and five scores. He also caught a touchdown pass.
All six Ducks who caught more than 20 passes last year are back, while running backs De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall combined for 1,453 rushing yards in reserve roles.
There is more to replace on defense, including defensive end Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft by Miami, and linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, the leading tacklers last season.
The secondary is back intact with safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson along with cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell. Boseko Lokombo is the lone returning starter at linebacker while Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi return on the line.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Oregon opens the season with what could be the biggest blowout in college football this season. Coming off four straight BCS bowl games, the Ducks host Nicholls State University, which is coming off back-to-back 1-10 seasons with a win over Evangel University in each year. After that, Oregon plays two BCS conference foes beginning with a trip to Virginia before hosting Tennessee. The Ducks have a bye week before opening conference play at home against California.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Oregon needs to find the next running back in line to continue its success running the ball in recent seasons. LaMichael James was one of the best running backs in the nation for three years before leaving early for the NFL, but Kenjon Barner replaced him last year and ran for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns. Now Oregon needs to find a replacement for Barner. There is no frontrunner, but plenty of candidates heading into camp. De'Anthony Thomas ran for 701 yards, but Oregon likes to use him at wideout as well after he led the Ducks in receptions last year, so he is unlikely to carry the load in the backfield. Sophomore Byron Marshall should see more work after averaging 5.1 yards on 87 carries, and five-star recruit Thomas Tyner could also be in the mix as a true freshman.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Oregon did not have a single change to its coaching staff during Chip Kelly's four seasons, the only team in the nation that kept its staff intact during that time. Kelly left and took defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro with him, giving the Ducks some new faces on the staff as well as familiar faces in new places. Helfrich is a head coach for the first time after serving as offensive coordinator under Kelly for the past four years. Helfrich will be coaching on the field for the first time in more than a decade after spending the past few years in the coaches' box. Scott Frost is an offensive coordinator for the first time after being promoted from receivers coach. Oregon hired Ron Aiken as defensive line coach after he spent the past six years coaching in the NFL. Matt Lubick was hired as receivers coach.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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