By Rob Moseley
In the days after Oregon’s Alamo Bowl win over Texas, the Ducks’ pride in a third straight bowl victory was mixed with a tinge of frustration.
As successful as the UO football team’s 11-2 season was, in the first year under head coach Mark Helfrich, the Ducks had bigger goals. Back home on his couch following the bowl trip, linebacker Rodney Hardrick was reminded of those goals every time he saw a commercial for the Bowl Championship Series title game.
“Those two losses hit us last year,” Hardrick said. “We’re not satisfied with where we’re at.”
Oregon’s 2013 season was derailed after the Ducks started 8-0 and reached the No. 2 ranking in the country. With Marcus Mariota playing through a significant knee injury, Oregon missed early scoring opportunities that allowed Stanford to set an overpowering tone in the Cardinal’s 26-20 victory on Nov. 7. Two weeks later, their title hopes seemingly dashed, the Ducks looked like a team that thought it had nothing left to play for in a 42-16 defeat at Arizona.
That day, and in a narrow Civil War victory the following week, the Oregon football program seemed like it needed a kick in the seat of the pants. Now, two months into the winter portion of the offseason, the Ducks sound like a team rejuvenated, ready to attack spring drills when they start in another month.
“We’re taking last season and using it as motivation,” Hardrick said. “As in, that’s not good enough. Good teams get complacent and expect (success) to come. But right now, we’re working for it.”
For Oregon defenders like Hardrick, this was going to be an offseason of renewal regardless of last season’s results.
Long-time defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti had decided the 2013 season would be his last, and he told the Ducks as much a few days before the Alamo Bowl. A dominating defensive effort followed, with Oregon returning two interceptions for touchdowns and allowing only one Texas scoring drive in the Alamo Bowl.
Helfrich then tabbed inside linebackers coach Don Pellum to replace Aliotti as coordinator. The former UO player and long-time position coach went to work tweaking the defense’s offseason regimen, demanding more accountability from players and setting up weekly tests on the Ducks’ defensive schemes.
“DP’s not playing around,” defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said.
Each Sunday, defenders are issued film on a different “spoke” in Oregon’s defensive scheme. They study it for a few days, are tested on the concepts Thursday, then review the results of the tests Friday in position meetings.
With the film on hand, the tests are essentially open-book. But taking them in that manner defeats the purpose, Hardrick said.
“The answers are right there,” he said. “But we’re trying to get guys not to just get the right answers, but to see improvement. We’re finding out what we don’t know, rather than just, let’s get 100 percent.
“In the past, spring ball had a lot of re-teaching. That’s what we’re doing now, so that when we start practices we’re not reviewing, we’re ready to go and we’re detailing.”
Hardrick said Pellum’s strict standards of accountability are being matched this offseason by Oregon’s wide receivers, who are in their first full offseason under second-year position coach Matt Lubick. Senior Keanon Lowe is a leader there, but redshirt freshman Darren Carrington has been an example of underclassmen who have followed suit.
Players have been assigned to small groups for weight-lifting, usually two veterans with a younger player, to keep the newcomers from congregating together and missing out on leadership opportunities. Hardrick lifts with Tony Washington and Tyrell Robinson; Hardrick benefits from lifting with a stronger guy in Washington, and Robinson gets to be around two of the team’s most respected leaders.
Those mentoring relationships are in place off the field as well. The Ducks have taken the concept of “spotting each other” in the weight room into their social lives, watching over each other away from the football facilities.
“We’re just raising our standards,” Hardrick said. “Everyone else is hopping on board. Before, you’d have a couple groups here and there. Now our standard as a team is rising.”
In no other way is that more evident than the Ducks’ determination to get bigger and stronger this offseason. Though a healthy Mariota probably would have changed the tenor of the Stanford and Arizona games, the fact remains that Oregon got pushed around at the line of scrimmage in the two losses.
The Ducks are determined not to have that be the case in 2014.
“It’s a big priority,” Buckner said. “You look at us and we don’t really pass the eyeball test. It’s a really big emphasis.”
Players said the push to get bigger and stronger is as much borne from a determination by the Ducks themselves to address a perceived weakness as it is a directive from the staff.
“The culture in the weight room is different,” Hardrick said. “Everyone’s trying to get better. Guys are screaming and yelling. The environment overall is way better than before.”
Buckner said he’s putting more emphasis on power lifts like the bench press and squat, along with the explosive Olympic lifts. Players talked of doing fewer reps at higher weight to raise their max lifts more frequently and build more power.
For linemen, drills done outside the weight room in strength and conditioning sessions have changed too. Offensive guard Hamani Stevens said drills are more position-specific, with linemen pushing and throwing heavy weights around on the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex’s outdoor practice fields.
Indeed, the push to get bigger and stronger isn’t limited to the defense.
“If we’re not big, we’re not going to move the ball,” offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone said.
For the last few years, speed has been the Ducks’ hallmark. They don’t want to lose that, but they also know that different opponents might require different styles of play.
“We’re not going to lose the explosiveness we’ve had,” defensive lineman T.J. Daniel said. “We’re just going to gain some more power and gain some more strength so we don’t get pushed around.”
The coaching staff is doing its part to address those needs as well. With ink barely dry on letters of intent from the 2014 signing class, UO coaches are already well underway evaluating talent for 2015.
Primarily, that involves watching film of prospects, and getting started on the extensive profiles the Ducks assemble on recruits, both of their on-field performance and their character off the field.
Helfrich isn’t looking to scrap Oregon’s identity as an up-tempo, spread-option dynamo, but issues of size and power can be addressed in recruiting.
“That’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of deal,” Helfrich said. “We need to get bigger and better on both sides of the ball up front. Part of that is recruiting. Part of that is how we coach them. Part of that is strength and conditioning. Everybody’s all in.
“We need to recruit the best version of what fits our culture, and what’s our style. But then you’ve got to be able to tweak it. You’re going to play Stanford drastically different than you’re going to play Washington State – that’s just a fact.”
Along with recruiting, Oregon’s coaches are conducting quality control: “everything from nutrition, practice planning, lifting, scheming in every phase,” Helfrich said. “And then, what are we going to do more of, less of, different, better, whatever.”
It’s been two months of reflection and adjustments for the Oregon football program since the Alamo Bowl victory. If all goes well, Hardrick won’t be watching commercials for college football’s premier bowl games from his couch next winter. The Ducks will be featured in them, and Hardrick will be preparing to play in one.