The Ducks got two powerful sources of inspiration and commitment this winter, and both will pay great dividends in their quest for greatness in 2014.
The decision by Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to return to school is monumental for the mission of Oregon football. These three delayed millions in the NFL draft. Ifo and Super Mario were likely first-round picks, both in the top 20, and Grasu could have been selected in the first three rounds. Centers typically have among the longest and most stable careers in football.
Leave no doubt: there's a certainty of purpose and a wealth of leadership in the 2014 Oregon football team, starting with the best quarterback in the country.
While each will benefit from another year of seasoning and development at the college level, their scouting reports and raw talent were enough that all three could have gone and made life-changing money in salary and bonuses, yet all three decided that their Oregon experience and the opportunity to work alongside their coaches and teammates in Eugene was more valuable for them. They made life decisions that are remarkable for their foresight and maturity.
The significance of their return stamps the 2014 team as serious, committed, and stocked with 6-star talent at three key positions, quarterback, center and lockdown cornerback.
Together Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu form the leadership base for this team, and no team achieves greatness in college football without outstanding internal leadership.
This squad will be serious and focused. It will remember the lessons of Mark Helfrich's first year, and it will have a sense of mission about achieving their potential and overcoming the obstacles that tripped them up last season.
The bold, brave decision will rub off on their teammates, and set a powerful expectation of what they're playing for this season. They demonstrated a love and loyalty of their school and teammates that will profoundly enhance an already-positive culture among the Ducks.
The 2013 squad was good, and talented, but there was a rottenness at the center, or at least a hint of spoilage. A couple of star players had one foot out the door in terms of their commitment to team goals, and one player left five games into the season. Another seemed detached, making rogue statements and wandering off on his own agenda. A few players seemed more focused on the NFL combine or partying than football.
The focus in 2014 will be tighter, and Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu will lead it. They're playing for more than a pro contract, and their actions set a sense of mission and camraderie that is more powerful than any halftime speech. And they're surrounded by other capable leaders who will get fresh inspiration from having them back. Already Tony Washington has emerged as a team leader. Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone are the solid foundation on an experienced offenisve line. Byron Marshall and Bralon Addison are now veterans and key weapons in the offense. Keanon Lowe , a fierce blocker and unselfish teammate, sets the tone among the receivers in terms of effort and intensity. Derrick Malone, DeForest Buckner and Rodney Hardrick are disciplined warriors that will anchor Don Pellum's new defense.
There are a host of young players that have waited their turn, and all were selected as a part of Oregon's 8-point recruiting process. The leadership, character and maturity in this group is outstanding, and they were talented recruits. Duck fans can expect good things from players like Darren Carrington, Chance Allen, Danny Mattingly, T.J. Daniel, Tyree Robinsons and Reggie Daniels.
The practice intensity and enthusiasm of this group will be outstanding, and the lessons of 2013 won't be forgotten. This team will sustain their commitment through a long season. They will play with a lot of loyalty to each other.
In addition, there is a fresh infusion of talent and commitment in the new class. I've spent the last week interviewing the incoming class for a series for Duck Sports Authority, "Getting to know the 2014 recruits" and I've come away from every interview with the impression, "what an outstanding young man." Morgan Mahalak, Royce Freeman, Tony James and their teammates, while not the 5-star wunderkinds they recruited at Alabama or USC, are all talented football players, but they also have something extra as a group. "We got on the same page right from the start," Mahalak told me. James echoed that, telling me how he bonded with Jimmie Swain, Tyrell Crosby and Arrion Springs at the Under Armour All-American Game.
They committed early, stayed true to their commitment and came in together. These are serious, hard-working guys who love football. They are outstanding leaders and students. They came to Oregon to be a part of something. And Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu stayed for the same reason. The junior college editions, Tua Talia, Domique Harrison and Haniteli Lousi are also all of the same caliber, in talent, character and commitment.
A team takes on the personality of its leaders. There will be a new energy at Oregon practice this spring, a palpable change in the air. It will permeate workouts and statements to the media. It will define everything they do. This is a team with a great love for each other and for the game. "Expect another great season," James told me. Outsized expectations have never been more reasonable.
Good write up. This year is very promising with all the returning players. I just hope we get more backup QB play when we have a decent lead. I feel that the expectations for this team are about as high as they can get. The problem is when MM, Ekpre and Grasu leave who is going to fill those positions? That is going to lead to a downfall in production.
It's fun to get all excited about the current season and what it will bring. But my gut feeling is that with MM, Ekpre and Grasu coming back has just delayed the inevitable. And that is that Oregon will drop off substantially next year. So far there's no decent backup QB with enough game experience in the line up.
Enjoy this year cause it could be the best Oregon has seen in a long time and possibly for the next few years.
All teams drop off and the current situation at Oregon is trending towards a drop off after this year.
An NC win would surely help the situation that's for sure.
This idea that our coach Helfrich is too nice a guy and nice guys can't be winners has been debunked in he Super Bowl when Pete Carol won it all. I loved Chip, I grew up following the great Vince Lombardi.. I can still quote him,if you like,.But, Helfrich makes very intelligent decisions.Yeah, He probably got tomahawked by some of the guys who came to play for Chip,but lets not forget,he is 11-2 in his first year and that is outstanding!!
Thanks for the write up Dale, very complete, and it leads one to believe we will have a fine team this year. That is what I believe in fact. The big question is will Oregon be ready for Michigan State September 6th? This will be a game as big as the Rose Bowl. Playing at Autzen will be great but that is no guarantee of success. Think Stanford and USC in recent years. If we can perform and win this game, we can win any game next year.
Last year looked like it would be "the" year and of course it turned out to be, "that" year instead. But "this" season we have every reason to be optimistic. Helfrich isn't a first timer, but Pellum comes in with fresh optimism and enthusiasm. Mariota, Grassu and Olomu lead a group of hungry Ducks who definitely don't like the taste last season left in their mouths, and rest of the team wants to get the program back where it was.
I enjoyed the article very much as it was an inspiring well written piece Dale.Thanks for keeping us all up-to-date during the off season doldrums.I too am excited about our players who “sat out” last season.They all seem to be great people as well as great athletes that will contribute to “Winning the Day.”
Have we heard anything further regarding additional 2014 recruits? Rumor suggests the vetting process is in play, however; hasn’t it been a long time?
Go Ducks WTD
@deep south duck I think Helfrich can develop into a good coach, but I don't think of Carroll as a particularly nice guy.
@deep south duck I think his worthiness won't be decided until he beats teams he isn't suppose to beat, such as Stanford, Michigan State or Alabama.
@deep south duck Uhhhh, no it hasn't, at least not in Helfrich's case it hasn't. By the way, if you think Carroll is a nice guy remember the f-bombs he threw at Bellotti on tv? Yeah, real nice guy.
@SonomaDuck SD, that is one of the highest high-profile games on the September football schedule, and a seminal moment for this team.
@SonomaDuck This game is key. Please forgive me for restating the obvious. Go Ducks WTD
@Ducko30 They'll need to stay healthy at quarterback and on the defensive line, but yeah, there's a very sound basis for optimism.
@hoboduck I hope MH has figured out how to work the levers and gears. I'll be looking for more intensity, discipline and determination from the DP defense and talent utilizing play calling from SF. Special teams needs to help win games and not help lose them. I would like to see a season that that didn't generate any negative national headlines. Anything is possible.