Less than 23 months after the Oregon Ducks played for the inaugural College Football Playoff championship, university athletic brass decided the time had come for a change in Eugene. And what a change.
The dismissal of former head coach Mark Helfrich and hiring of Willie Taggart from USF marked Oregon football's first hire from outside the direct line of succession beginning in 1976 under Rich Brooks. A shake-up four decades in the making came as a result of Oregon's startling slide from Pac-12 title contender to 4-8 in just one season.
Helfrich's sudden firing renders a clear statement about the expectations for Oregon football. Its recent success and rising profile as a result of its affiliation with Nike mogul Phil Knight set the bar at conference title contention.
The new coaching staf has work to do to return Oregon to the Pac-12's pinnacle. Their efforts kick off in earnest with the start of their first spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oregon's Spring Practice
1. A Smoother Spring
A new era for Oregon football got off to a rocky start in January, when three Ducks were hospitalized following offseason conditioning workouts. A week after the story made national headlines, newly minted co-offensive coordinator David Reaves was fired following a DUI arrest. Taggart has also had a public battle with local newspaper The Oregonian, the publication that broke the hospitalization story.
The tumult of the new regime's initial few months begs for a quiet spring free of negative headlines.
2. A New Challenge for Jim Leavitt
Leavitt arrived at Colorado in 2015, tasked with transforming a defense that ranked among the nation's worst repeatedly for the better part of a decade. He needed little time to completely overhaul the Buffaloes as their defensive coordinator. They improved from No. 119 in scoring defense in the season before his arrival, to No. 20 last season.
Colorado also saw a jump in turnovers generated, with just 11 in the 2014 campaign, to 26 in '16. The defense proved vital to the Buffs' first Pac-12 South championship, and Leavitt was a Frank Broyles Award finalist for his efforts.
Taggart scored one of the biggest coups of college football's offseason by luring Leavitt away from Oregon's Pac-12 counterparts in the Rockies. Now, the defensive coordinator faces a new mountain to climb in Eugene. He inherits the No. 126-ranked scoring defense, which was just about as bad against the pass (No. 113) as it was against the run (No. 121).
3. Potential in the Front Seven
Despite its struggles a season ago, Leavitt won't be working with an empty cupboard on defense. In particular, the Oregon front seven shows some real promise, starting with Freshman All-American linebacker, Troy Dye.
Dye is a versatile playmaker in the vein of past Ducks like Kiko Alonso and Boseko Lokombo. His 13.5 tackles for a loss led the team a season ago, and he could see greater production in 2017 with improvements from the front line. One of the areas in which Colorado made considerable strides was in the play of its front, and Leavitt has capable defensive ends in Justin Hollins and Jalen Jelks. Henry Mondeaux embarks on his third season as a starter along the interior, and his progression as a pass-rushing presence up the middle could set the tone for Oregon's entire defense.
4. Quarterback Competition?
The quarterback competition at Oregon the previous two springs was shrouded in the unknown. In 2015, the spotlight lingered on Cheney, Washington. That's where Vernon Adams finished his undergraduate studies at Eastern Washington University, in preparation for a rare FCS-to-FBS transfer.
After Adams capably filled Marcus Mariota's Heisman-winning shoes for a season, fellow FCS import Dakota Prukop arrived in 2016. He played in a system at Montana State derived from former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, but Prukop struggled once autumn arrived. Up stepped freshman Justin Herbert, a revelation in an otherwise frustrating season for the Ducks. He passed for 19 touchdowns against just four interceptions, and his savvy pocket presence far exceeded his youth.
The arrival of a new coaching staff brings philosophical changes, and the approach of Taggart's staff to the quarterback position will be one of the spring's most intriguing storylines. USF flourished with Quinton Flowers, a dynamic dual threat, behind center. Herbert is capable of running, but isn't necessarily a running quarterback. Travis Jonsen showed flashes of explosiveness last spring.
Jonsen and Terry Wilson, as well as early enrollee Braxton Burmeister, could give the new coaching staff something to think about if any stand out in spring practices.
5. Royce Freeman and the Running Back Rotation
Freeman entered the 2016 season in pursuit of various records, and garnering not-insignificant Heisman Trophy buzz. Freeman was by no means bad in his junior campaign — he averaged better than 5.6 yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns — but the various program and conference records within his reach eluded him due to lingering injuries.
He opted to return to Eugene for his senior season, giving Oregon the signature Rolls Royce ornament on an impressive backfield engine. Alongside Freeman, the Ducks welcome back Tony Brooks-James, whose 7.63 yards per carry made him one of the nation's most explosive ball carriers; and Kani Benoit, a reliable veteran backup.
Taggart's teams at USF and Western Kentucky often featured a clear No. 1 running back. Marlon Mack led the American Athletic Conference in rushing in 2015, racking up more than 200 carries. Antonio Andrews and Bobby Rainey both eclipsed 300 rushes in a season with Taggart at the helm of Western Kentucky.
However, last season at USF, the Bulls distributed more than100 carries among three players. Oregon could rely on Freeman to take up a significant workload again, as he did in 2015, or go with a highly balanced approach. There's no shortage of options in this backfield.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Oregon in the Pac-12
Oregon's descent from the top of the Pac-12 to near the bottom took just one year. Such things transpire quickly in college football, but the good news is that as fast as a program can fall, it can build back up.
Willie Taggart has been a master of quick turnarounds as a head coach, both at Western Kentucky and USF. He begins with a sturdier foundation at Oregon. Having Jim Leavitt on board to oversee the defense addresses the most glaring issue facing the Ducks.
Oregon probably won't be ready to contend with rival Washington for Pac-12 North supremacy, but Ducks fans can expect a clear turnaround in 2017.
(Top photo courtey of www.goducks.com)