By Rob Moseley
When the Oregon football team reported for preseason camp this past weekend, newcomers on Saturday and veterans a day later, their team-issued gear for the 2014 season included a subtle but significant tweak.
Running along the neckline of the gray T-shirts players wear for weightlifting and walk-throughs was the newest addition to the Ducks’ seemingly endless array of team colors. Though this one probably won’t make many appearances elsewhere, the blue collar on the T-shirts will serve as a reminder of the attitude Mark Helfrich wants his team to take into the season, which began with the first practice of preseason camp Monday afternoon.
“You can’t forget where you came from and what you’re about,” UO senior linebacker Tony Washington said. “And that can happen sometimes, especially when you’re at the top of the conversation, and everybody is praising you. It brings you back to reality, realizing you’ve got to keep working to be where you want to be.”
There’s been no shortage of praise heaped upon the Ducks over the last few weeks. Oregon was picked by media covering the Pac-12 to win the conference title, after two years of finishing second behind Stanford in the Pac-12 North. Last week, the first coaches’ poll of the year slotted the Ducks at No. 4, theoretically in line to qualify for the new College Football Playoff format instituted for this season.
As Helfrich said Monday morning during the Ducks’ media day, those accolades are “great to talk about on Aug. 4.” But Oregon has little chance of achieving them without bringing a blue-collar work ethic each day of the season, sticking to what Helfrich calls “the process.”
“Do we want to be in the discussion? Absolutely,” Helfrich said. “And that’s fun. But it doesn’t matter. When we go to meetings, when we go to train, we’re totally locked in on our deal.”
The blue collars were Helfrich’s idea, and players didn’t learn about them until they were issued their gear. Well, most didn’t; receiver Keanon Lowe, a fifth-year senior, got a heads up from workers in the equipment room.
“I thought it was a good idea,” said Lowe, who was already arguably the hardest working player on the team based on data collected electronically during practices. “Obviously blue’s not our color, but it’s a representation of the way people work, and the way our team has worked and should continue to work.”
Lowe and other players noted that the Ducks typically find new mantras and watchwords to embrace in a new season. For 2014, it appears that “blue collar” will be among them.
“Any time a team gets this much attention – any team in the country – with the national championship talk, the playoff, Nike, it’s always good to have some type of reminder that, hey, we haven’t done much yet,” backup quarterback Jeff Lockie said. “Ground everybody a little bit, from the media that sometimes pumps it up.”
With no idea the tweak to the T-shirts was coming, senior linebacker Derrick Malone said he was at first confused by the new colored collars. But it immediately made sense, he said, calling it “cool” and “different.”
Typically, Oregon is known for being “cool” and “different” because of its flashy uniforms, impressive facilities and unique marketing. The Ducks can still be all of those, while trying to work as hard as any team in the country.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff, a lot of shiny stuff – but work is key,” Helfrich said. “Preparation, and work.”
At media day, Helfrich was asked what gave him confidence the Ducks will be able to build this season on their 11-2 record and No. 9 finish in 2013, an outstanding season tempered by two frustrating November defeats. In a nutshell, Helfrich’s response was about being blue collar, and the work ethic he’s seen from his staff and players throughout the offseason.
“Seeing those guys work every day,” Helfrich said, “knowing the kind of talent we have – both our coaching staff and our players – as long as our guys trust the process, believe in our culture, everything else takes care of itself.”