The concept wasn't novel but the execution was flawless.
Chip Kelly did many things extremely well in his first head coaching job, but foremost among them was his masterful job of selling his players and Duck fans on his methods and philosophy.
Central to that was "next man up," the idea that if a player went down or was lost to the program in some way, the next guy had to step in and do the job. The younger player was talented and prepared, and the coach created the expectation that the team would continue with the same energy and confidence.
Duck fan and DSH editor Scott Morgan writes:
The reload, not rebuild idea is something the Ducks have not really had the luxury to achieve, in my estimation. Teams like Alabama, Ohio State, USuCk, etc have the year-in, year-out top tier recruiting classes to sustain that in their programs and they know all too well how much of a benefit it is.
The loss of depth due to transfers (Lache Seastrunk, Tra Carson, Devon Blackmon, Tacoi Sumler) and injuries (John Boyett, Carson York, Avery Patterson, Curtis White, Josh Huff, Ricky Heimuli, Isaac Remington, Dion Jordan, Koa Ka'ai and numerous others.) during the past couple of years was much higher than the norm.
In past years, had we lost this magnitude of starting players - for the season or for significant portions of the season - we would never have had the depth to overcome such losses and play at the highest levels of college football. Players down the depth chart really stepped up and acquitted themselves admirably throughout the past couple of years.
It was a concept that was tested over and over again in Kelly's tenure, and the team responded with a 46-7 record and four BCS bowl berths. In 2009 the Ducks suffered the loss of LeGarrette Blount to suspension and Walter Thurmond due to injury but made it to the Rose Bowl. In 2010 starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team in the spring after a series of disciplinary issues, and Kelly tabbed a raw redshirt sophomore, Darron Thomas to lead a team that went 13-1, coming within a last-second field goal of winning a national championship. 2011, both star running back LaMichael James and Thomas missed games, but Bryan Bennett and Kenjon Barner filled in capably as the Ducks won their third straight conference title and their first Rose Bowl in nearly a hundred years.
As Scott noted, 2012 was the ultimate test of Oregon's depth and resilience. Late in 2011 All-American return man and defensive back Cliff Harris was dismissed after another series of the dreaded disciplinary issues. Then in the off season Darron Thomas and LaMichael James left early for the NFL. In training camp two senior starters, pivotal leaders on a young team, Carson York and John Boyett, were lost to knee problems.
On other teams or in other seasons, this combination of events would have been devastating.
Avery Patterson filled in brilliantly for Boyett, returning two interceptions for touchdowns, before suffering a knee injury and missing the season's last three games. Then Erick Dargan stepped in for Patterson, nabbing four picks, one each against Stanford and Oregon State, then two in the Fiesta Bowl victory over Optimus Klein and Kansas State. With Boyett gone, a dynamic ball-hawking safety who led the Ducks in tackles over three seasons, Dargan and Patterson combined for 98 tackles, 7 interceptions and 13 pass deflections.
By the California game the entire defensive line had gone down to the various aches and pains of the season. With Ricky Heimuli, Isaac Remington, Wade Keliikipi and Dion Jordan banged up, Buckner, Balducci, and Christian French had to play, and Lake Koa Ka'ai moved back over from tight end to fill in on the d-line, Koa Ka'ai forcing a fumble in a 59-17 victory.
This stuff didn't happen in the bad old days. In 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007 the Ducks started 4-0 or better, but each time the season derailed to due to injuries or a loss of focus. In the Rich Brooks era, before the rise of a national recruiting profile and a massive football operations center, Oregon was so woefully thin that a couple of key injuries could turn 5-1 to 5-6. Under Kelly, the talent pool and the determination of the group allowed Oregon to overcome the loss of key players. They displayed the ability and cohesiveness to consistently bring in a younger guy who accepted the challenge of bigger role with remarkable results.
Among fans, faith in "next man up" has grown to such proportions that another fan website recently ran a headline that said, "Marcus Mariota tears ACL? No sweat." That's a ludicrous premise, a glaring overuse of hyperbole and a loogie to the face of Juju, but it does illustrate how confident Oregon fans have become in the ability of the coaching staff to prepare younger players and build depth on the roster.
One of the key challenges for new coach Mark Helfrich will be maintaining the mindset of overcoming adversity and attrition, whether it's injuries, graduation, transfers or disciplinary issues. This spring the Ducks have to find a new star running back and replace Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay and Dion Jordan in the center of their defense. A backup to Mariota has to be chosen, two new starters have to be found on the offensive line, and there's a puzzle to sort out at receiver. Oregon hasn't had a go-to receiver since Jeff Maehl left for the Houston Texans, and among several talented candidates like B.J. Kelley, Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison, the situation aches for someone to rise up and become the kind of threat opponents have to account for in the game plan, a true 1,000-yard stud who makes big plays and creates more room for the running game.
It's a long off season. Every year brings some bad news, whether it's compromising Twitter photographs, the aftermath of inadvisable party behavior, or an ill-fated cut in a passing drill. Players go down or fail sociology. They're kids. They get homesick or lose a girl. Having the talent pool and the resilience to turn to the next man up is essential, and Kelly sold this idea better than anyone.