Who are the hot new coaches in college football this season?
The answers that come to mind for most fans across the country as the sexy hires. Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Bret Bielema at Arkansas. Gary Andersen at Wisconsin.
Oregon's Mark Helfrich is an afterthought, despite taking over for the very successful Chip Kelly after Kelly left for the NFL. That's not so much a knock on Helfrich--Oregon, at this point, is the most high profile job to be getting a new coach this season, and certainly the one with the highest expectations--but more a function of stability. Kelly took only one coach, defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, with him to Philadelphia, and with the rest of the coaching staff remaining in place, Helfrich's promotion from the offensive coordinator position is seen as maintaining the status quo.
The Ducks will be very good this season. Helfrich, even if a disaster, almost can't screw that up. Five major pieces were lost to graduation--RB Kenjon Barner, OL Kyle Long, LB Kiko Alonso, LB Michael Clay, and DE Dion Jordan--and given the depth on the roster, only the linebackers have many even a bit concerned. DeAnthony Thomas, Byron Marshall, and Thomas Tyner are waiting in the wings at running back. Tony Washington and Christian French at drop end. A kid could coach this team to nine victories this season, especially if he had Nick Aliotti as his defensive coordinator.
We'll learn about Helfrich this season. While we don't expect wholesale changes, we'll learn if he's going to place a greater emphasis on the passing game. If he'll be as bold as his predecessor on 4th down. How he'll handle fans and the media.
But the greater questions about Helfrich won't be answered until this season is over. And the most important of those may be what happens after Marcus Mariota leaves. Everything Chip Kelly touched at the quarterback position turned to gold. Helfrich was no doubt a part of that, but how much so remains a mystery. The Oregon machine will always get enough backs and receivers, but the QB makes the machine go. Can Helfrich have the same success as his predecessor at that position?
It should be perfectly clear--Oregon isn't going to make BCS bowls every year forever. But success for Oregon should mean that the down seasons are 8-9 wins instead of 5-6. If Helfrich can maintain that standard, his tenure at Oregon should be long a fruitful.
But we'll have no idea of that after this season. In 1989, Jim Anderson, Ralph Miller's longtime assistant at Oregon State, took over a team that had Gary Payton on the roster. He finished 22-7 and made the NCAA Tournament that season. Payton graduated, Anderson never had another winning record. Oregon State, a national powerhouse in the 80's, hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since.
Of course, longtime Oregon coach Mike Bellotti ceded way to his assistant, much like Bellotti took over for his boss, Rich Brooks. Both of those turned out beautifully.
As safe a hire as it seems to be, nothing is ever for sure. We can't know whether Helfrich will ultimately be successful after one season, regardless of how good (or bad) this season turns out to be. That said, what do you expect to learn about Mark Helfrich this season?