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Jury still out on Helfrich's Ducks

Spring game mixed bag, as Oregon aims to fill various voids


EUGENE — The Oregon Ducks football team practiced behind closed doors 14 times this spring.

The one time the Ducks allowed the public to observe them, in Saturday’s annual spring game at Autzen Stadium, the performance was not terribly impressive. The offense was largely lackluster, the defense barely kept pace, and all in all it was an underwhelming and boring event for the announced crowd of 37,129.

“Probably 37,000 people left going, ‘I don’t know,’” said second-year Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich. “And they were probably right.”

However, of the spring, Helfrich said, “Overall, we got better. Through 14 practices, we really got better, and we’re really pleased with where we are.”

Everyone will have to take Helfrich’s word on the fact that the Ducks looked better during their first 14 practices than in the scrimmage game.

One exception to the so-so play of the Ducks was junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, who completed 6 of 7 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns in a short spring game stint. Mariota noted that this year he is focused on improving his form below the ankles.

“This spring, the focal point with me was footwork,” Mariota said. “(Offensive coordinator Scott) Frost has done a really good job with me. I’m not saying that my footwork is perfect, but it’s something I continue to work on. You throw with your feet, and a lot of the bad throws, a lot of the inconsistent throws I had last year were because of my feet not being in the right place. It’s one of those things that I’ve got to continue to work on.”

With a knee injury knocking receiver Bralon Adison out for the season, the Ducks are desperately searching for a player to catch Mariota’s passes. They may have found their man with Johnathan Loyd. After using up his basketball eligibility, the former Ducks point guard has joined the football team as a receiver.

“There’s a few layers of rust that you’re knocking off after not playing football for that long, but he’s got a great attitude,” Mariota said. “A very fun guy to be around. A tough dude, a tough guy. We’ll see where he ends up.”

Another player who could fill the Ducks’ void at receiver is redshirt freshman Devon Allen, a talented hurdler on the Oregon track team. In the spring game, he caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Mariota and a 49-yard TD throw from Damion Hobbs, one of several backup QBs.

“He’s getting his track speed out on the football field,” Helfrich said. “We love tough track guys. There’s that perception that a track guy is a soft guy, and that’s absolutely not the case if they’re the right guy.

“You find that a lot of times if that’s a hurdler. He’s a tough dude, and he’s starting to play at track speed. He’s going to make those young guys learn quickly or get beat out.”

Allen said he has improved significantly on the football field this spring.

“I was getting better with spring ball, and the coaches started getting more confident in my abilities,” Allen said. “They gave me a chance to run some things and get open.”

Sophomore running back Thomas Tyner from Aloha High is likely to carry a bigger load this season. During the spring game, Tyner had a highlight play, catching a 22-yard touchdown toss from Mariota. Tyner finished the game with 58 yards rushing.

“That kid has learned how to practice,” Helfrich said. “He’s one of the first guys out here every day, which was the polar opposite last fall, and he’s been outstanding on special teams.”

Helfrich said Tyner still is not in good enough shape, though.

“He needs to get in better shape,” Helfrich said. “He’s not in very good shape. He played a little bit too slowly (during the spring game).”

One of the biggest story lines of the spring game was which redshirt sophomore would step into the backup quarterback role — Jeff Lockie or Jake Rodrigues. Neither played particularly; Rodrigues completed 7 of 18 for 66 yards and a touchdown, Lockie was 7 of 12 for 121 yards and a touchdown.

“Meh,” Helfrich said, of the play of the two quarterbacks. “Both of them sort of forced it. Both of them were trying to win the job with one throw. And that’s the fastest way to lose it.”