A new era of Oregon Football has begun.
After a rocky 2016 season and subsequent program overahaul, Oregon Football as we know it has been indefinitely changed. The change, even for this hold-out skeptic, seems to be a good thing.
Yes, I defended Mark Helfrich to the end (and beyond). Yes, I felt he deserved another year. Yes, I felt all the change, all the new slogans and all the hype might just be a huge gamble Oregon would eventually regret. After all, was it really worth taking down the pillars of the program with a stick of dynamite and quick strike of a match? Time will tell; but four weeks into Spring Football, the Willie Taggart era is off to an impressive start.
To be fair, this is the first time in many years that media has been allowed into each Spring practice as both Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich opted to close most practices, creating a level of mystery about what was going on behind the tall hedge-covered fence. Perhaps intentions were pure but as a result, the protocol created a whole lot of separation between the team, media and of course, the fans.
Enter Willie Taggart.
At least for now, those hedges have metaphorically been cut down and a window into the program has graciously been opened. So far, the view has been pretty impressive.
For weeks now, I’ve been silent, intent on sitting back and observing- waiting for little “moments” and a few words that may open that window just a bit wider. It is, after all, the little things that often paint the bigger picture on the gridiron.
Those little things weren’t hard to find.
Starting with Taggart’s first press conference, things just felt different. Taggart was energetic, funny, and relateable. He gave genuine and detailed answers and spoke with enthusiasm. Even when media department staff attempted to end the press conference, Taggart insisted on staying to answer more questions, all because he was excited to talk about football.
It was the moment after his final question, however, that stood out to me the most. As Taggart stood up to walk out, I shyly approached him, asking to take a close up picture of him. Not only did he pose, he joked around and posed several times and thanked me. Just a moment but one that spoke volumes and showed just how approachable Taggart is.
A Clean Slate
As hard as it was to see many of the previous Oregon coaches let go, no one can argue that Taggart created an incredible staff. If I had a dollar for every time a fellow reporter said, “He really has hired his dream team,” I’d probably be able to buy that signed Mariota jersey I’ve wanted all these years. Or, at least a few Frappacinos. In all seriousness though, the coaching staff has been exciting to get to know and watch. They’ve been energetic, articulate and dare I say it, refreshingly transparent. Everything is new and the program’s entire aura seems to be shifting.
“Guys know they have a clean slate,” Co-Offensive Coordinator, Mario Cristobal, told reporters the first week of Spring Football. “They’ve got to prove themselves to us. We’ve got to prove ourselves to them.”
Again, everything has a brand new feel. Slogans such as “Do Something” seem to have replaced the ever-present “Win The Day” and a daily-moving depth chart has been implemented to create more competition. In fact, if there was one word that surfaced more than any other during Spring Football, it would be “compete.”
“Guys can’t have a bad day and expect to stay in that spot,” Taggart said prior to the first official Spring practice.
“You’ve got to come and compete every single day. . .It’s gonna be competitive. We wasn’t here last year so whatever happened, it really doesn’t matter. It’s all moving forward from this point on and each one of those guys is going to have an opportunity to compete.”
For Taggart, competition doesn’t just happen on the field. It also happens in life and in the classroom. Perhaps that has something to do the team having the best collective GPA in over 17 years.
It’s clear this staff is focused on going back to square one, developing chemistry, finding leaders, getting stronger physically, being more disciplined (on and off the field) and mastering the fundamentals.
One of my favorite moments of Spring Football was watching coach Cristobal work with the line on the first day. I was curious to see how a guy who coached under the infamous Nick Saban would work with the players. I was immediately impressed with his hard-nosed, yet encouraging style. He yelled, cursed and demanded effort. He also gently corrected form, talked to players respectfully and seemed to instill confidence.
Another major change seems to be the teams new-found energy, or as Coach Taggart calls it, “the Juice.” Players run to practice and individual drills , they seem focused yet relaxed and they compete while they cheer each other on. They also smile and occasionally dance. It’s hard not to. In fact a couple of weeks ago, I, myself, had a hard time containing my own “moves” as Snoop Dogg blared from the speakers. I immediately scanned the Mo Center to see who would break from all the focus and competition. Who wouldn’t be able to contain their swag? One player. Number 44. Not one time but several discrete moves and bops of the head. I checked the roster. Matt Mariota? Yes!
A brief moment that could be easily overlooked. For me though, it was more than that. Not only was it funny (given he’s related to Marcus Mariota, who I would never envision dancing during practice) but it illustrated just how much fun the players are having in the midst of all the competition.
Making Great Things Greater
With so many changes, there are a lot of things to be excited about and a lot of questions still to be answered. At the end of the day though, the slate wasn’t completely wiped clean. The Ducks will enter this season with a lot of talent and a few veteran play-makers, led by running back Royce Freeman. In this new Taggart era, even great things can be made greater.
Of course It’s hard to think about what Freeman could do better, but Taggart is set on Freeman being more aggressive- attacking rather than being attacked. To help him do that, Freeman was working on blocking drills with the lineman yesterday. As he finished one of the drills, Cristobal jokingly shouted, “Another 100 pounds and you’ll make a great guard!”
Again, just an easily overlooked moment. It’s those little things though that add up. Figuring out how to make a veteran star even better could pay big dividends later on.
Moments matter. The little things matter. Something tells me this new staff gets that.
Buckle up Ducks fans! If you haven’t bought in, go ahead and join me in taking the plunge. Taggart and Co. is ready to “Do Something,” and the ride has only just begun.