By Rob Moseley
By the end of this past Saturday evening, 10 true freshmen had played in No. 3 Oregon’s season-opening victory over South Dakota. The number matched the most freshmen used in an entire season in recent UO history – 2007 – and that was after just one game, with a couple more recent high school graduates still on the bubble to participate this season.
From the outside, it might seem surprising that one of the nation’s best teams over the last decade, with 14 returning starters on offense and defense, would need to rely on an infusion of young talent -- and from a 2014 recruiting class ranked outside the top 20 nationally by major recruiting websites. But from the start of camp, players and coaches have marveled at the maturity of this class, both physically and mentally.
With a nod to former UO track and field coach Bill Bowerman, head football coach Mark Helfrich likes to say he expects his players to act like “Men of Oregon.” The ability of the freshmen to do so is not to be overlooked in their readiness to contribute right off the bat.
Helfrich describes “Men of Oregon” as “a philosophy, a mindset, a goal” for each of his players. The bar is set high, and not every Duck meets it every day. But with five straight recruiting classes having all qualified for enrollment, and 112 of 115 seniors since 2008 having graduated or moved on to play professionally, there’s been a correlation between team character and the Ducks’ seven straight seasons with at least nine wins, the longest active streak in the nation.
“Being a man of Oregon is first and foremost about being respectful – just being respectful to the game of football,” receiver Keanon Lowe said. “That means showing up on time, working as hard as you can, putting in extra work, and just being mature about any situation you’re put in. You face a lot of adversity in college football, especially if you’re a young guy. It’s really just how you handle it. …
“The guys who play here, and especially the young guys who play here, are guys who can handle it off the field, and handle school, and handle the pressure and the instant fame you get when you sign here.”
Two freshmen mentioned most often by coaches for their mature approach to practice and meetings are running back Royce Freeman and receiver/returner Charles Nelson, each of whom scored in the opener. Right tackle Tyrell Crosby also played Saturday on offense as a true freshman, and the defensive contributors from the 2014 recruiting class included linemen Austin Maloata and Henry Mondeaux, linebackers Justin Hollins and Jimmie Swain and defensive back Arrion Springs. Long snapper Tanner Carew and kicker Aidan Schneider contributed on special teams.
Senior outside linebacker Tony Washington said he wasn’t surprised at all to see so many newcomers contribute. “This is a group that came in ready to learn, ready to ask questions and understand what they’re supposed to do,” Washington said. “When you see guys out there, it’s because they were in here early, getting with the older guys, trying to learn.”
Though he’s now a senior all-American, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu “asks more questions than anybody” in meetings, Helfrich said. Some of the newcomers have followed that lead; in a recent special teams meeting, coordinator Tom Osborne effusively praised Hollins for an answer he gave, and while that drew a couple snickers from the back of the room, Hollins’ attentiveness helped explain why he was a starter on the UO kickoff team last week.
“That’s cool,” Helfrich said. “It’s cool to be right. It’s not cool to be sitting in the back of the room being a court jester.”
The veterans who set the tone as “Men of Oregon” include Ekpre-Olomu, Lowe, Washington, linebackers Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone Jr., center Hroniss Grasu and quarterback Marcus Mariota, among others. Helfrich called them “guys that get it, on and off the field, the fact that everything they do matters.”
The coach said he regularly receives email from members of the community mentioning a small gesture by a player – Mariota holding a door open for someone – that resonated deeply. The athletic department's O Heroes program documented over 35 charitable events attended and 3,000 service hours volunteered to the benefit of over 2,000 local kids by UO athletes in the past year, including 76 football players.
That spirit of selflessness, thinking outside themselves, is the root of the culture Helfrich has worked to perpetuate after taking over from Chip Kelly. Helfrich hit on “Men of Oregon” while searching for “something to encompass everything, on and off the field – community, classroom, personal accountability. Something to help our guys grow up a little faster.”
The guidelines aren’t set in stone, but they’re generally understood. Act like an adult when you’re out in the community. Respect teammates and coaches enough to be on time and attentive for team functions. Help keep guys out of trouble off the field. “It just kind of reinforces always doing the little things,” Washington said. “And when you do the little things, you’re always in the right position to succeed, whether it’s on or off the field.”
“I think we have a pretty mature group, all in all,” Helfrich said. “But they’re still young adult males that are growing up.” Several players left the program over the offseason, illustrating that the “Men of Oregon” standard isn’t always reached. And also, that the big-time benefits of being a Duck carry with them big-time consequences for violating those standards.
“They’re not perfect; they’re young people here to learn,” UO athletic director Rob Mullens said. “But it’s a group of quality people. They support one another, look out for one another.
“There’s no question that innovation and preparation contribute to their success. But at the end of the day, the emphasis they place on character evaluation and character education, through the recruiting process and then when they come here, really is the difference in the success of the program.”
To enroll every player from the last five recruiting classes, the football program helped itself by targeting more prepared recruits. Over the past four years, the average incoming scholarship player has a GPA above 3.0 in core classes, comparing favorably with any school in the Pac-12 outside of Stanford.
Academic success is just one factor in what has become an exhaustive character evaluation process the Ducks use in recruiting. It pays off on nights like this past Saturday, when 10 freshmen see the field. “A guy that’s more mature or more unselfish or more all-in before he gets here, the sky’s the limit,” Helfrich said. “Guys like Tyrell, Royce, Charles, they’re very mature 18-year-olds. They’re still 18-year-olds, but very mature, very unselfish guys.”
Oregon’s recent success means the Ducks have a target on their backs, on the field and in recruiting. Helfrich said that only makes sticking to their character standards that much more important, rather than sacrificing for a quick fix of talent. “The cost-benefit of that is not worth it,” he said. “As soon as you make one exception, then you make three, then you make five, and it’s a mutiny.”
Thus has Helfrich demonstrated a low tolerance with players whose conduct appreciably violates his “Men of Oregon” standard. “Being a Man of Oregon is different,” Helfrich acknowledges. “It’s hard.”
But as 10 true freshmen found out last week, the dividends are substantial – playing before 60,000 adoring fans in Autzen Stadium, for the No. 3 team in the country.