With less than a month to go until the Ducks hit the gridiron, Oregon football fall camp opened on Monday and with it brought a flurry of story lines; among them, leadership.
And rightly so.
With so many change, questions marks and youth on both sides of the ball this season, leadership will be incredibly important. It will be the leaders that keep the team grounded and focused on all that has become the Oregon culture- training hard, training fast, winning the day, stepping up when things get tough and of course, representing the team well off the field.
This season, names of potential leaders have started to emerge. Among them? Jr. running back, Royce Freeman, Jr. wide receiver, Charles Nelson, Sr. linebacker, Johnny Ragin III, Sr. offensive lineman, Cameron Hunt, and Jr. defensive back, Tyree Robinson.
With so many of the likely leaders being known as quieter guys, one might wonder if Head Coach, Mark Helfrich, preferred that type of leadership style as opposed to those who may be more vocal, so to speak- a preference that would signal a shift from just a couple of years ago when Marcus Mariota led the way.
As Mariota was emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in college football, Coach Helfrich said on numerous occasions that Mariota needed to become more vocal. This was so important that the program even arranged for Mariota to begin working with youth at the Boys and Girls Club in an effort to pull him out of his shell. Through at least two seasons, Mariota himself mentioned several times that he was working on becoming more of a vocal leader. Although he made some strides, it was as if Mariota’s quieter, lead-by-example, leadership style became more and more accepted.
In all fairness, it was obviously working.
Since Mariota’s departure to the NFL, the team has continued to see a line up of quieter leaders a la DeForest Buckner and now Royce Freeman and Charles Nelson. Their talent and work ethic make them natural candidates to lead but is leading by example enough? And perhaps more importantly, has there been a shift in the team’s leadership expectations?
Last month, I caught up with Coach Helfrich at the Pac 12 Media Days in Hollywood to get his thoughts on what seems to be this new leadership trend. Was he ok with guys like Royce Freeman and Charles Nelson not being terribly vocal?
“No, it’s not ok,” Helfrich said. “Leading by example is just not enough, especially with those guys that have it in there.”
So what do guys like Freeman and Nelson think about all of this?
Though Freeman says a balanced leadership type is needed, he doesn’t see himself becoming much of a vocal leader.
“I’m the same type of guy that you see,” Freeman said.
“I’m more that guy that’ll pull you aside and tell you what you did wrong or coach you in that way. I’m not really the in your face type of guy because I don’t really believe in that method.”
It seems Charles Nelson sees himself in a similar way, but is also working to get out of his comfort zone.
“I’m not very vocal and I’m pretty shy until I know you,” Nelson said. “I used to try to lead by example but not that Coach has appointed me, and others, it’s a hard transition.
Part of that transition includes making the players comfortable in uncomfortable situations, as Nelson put it. Though not specific, he described having to lead “programs” where they are expected to direct a group of players through a variety of areas.
So what does all of this mean for the team moving forward into the season? A whole lot.
Coach Helfrich has been clear. Vocal leadership is expected and needed. There are already some stand outs. Cameron Hunt and Tyree Robinson are said to fit that mold, but other spots have yet to be filled.
One positive sign came as Royce Freeman spoke during Monday’s Oregon Football Media Day. When asked about the differences he’s noticed between this year’s fall camp opening compared to those in years passed, he stated that many players were working hard to emerge as leaders this season, which was something that stood out to him.
But what about the quarterbacks?
In a quarterback battle that has yet to be settled, leadership style may just play a bigger role than anything as things shake out. If that’s the case, the job may in fact land in Dakota Prukop’s lap.
When asked about both quarterback’s leadership style, Nelson described both has making good progress but immediately named Prukop as the more vocal leader between the two.
“Dakota is more of a leader in general, just because he has years of experience in college,” Nelson said.
“This is Travis’ second year. As a quarterback, he has to be more vocal and over the Spring and Summer he’s done a good job of that. He’s becoming more of a leader just by his actions and the maturity he has now. But, he still has a way to go. Same thing for Dakota. He just got here and everyone’s not yet on the same page as him.”
Read into that what you may as the quarterback debate continues, but make no mistake, this year leadership will be key in who emerges as the starting quarterback. Or, as Travis Jonsen put it, whoever steps up to lead “When things get bad” will get the nod.