Chip Kelly may have left Oregon to try his breakneck offense in the NFL, but he left the program in great shape.
The third-ranked Ducks shouldn't stagnate under new coach Mark Helfrich, especially against overmatched Nicholls State in Saturday's opener at Autzen Stadium.
Oregon went 12-1 last season and defeated Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish ranked No. 2. Kelly left two weeks after the season ended to become coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the 40-year-old Helfrich took over after four seasons as the team's offensive coordinator.
With Kelly and Helfrich directing the speedy spread-option offense, the Ducks went 46-7 and played in BCS bowl games in each of the last four years, including an appearance in the national championship game against Auburn in 2011.
Helfrich has said he's not going to mess with success, but is putting his own spin on the offense.
"The most important thing is all of our guys believe in our program and we don't look at it as someone replacing someone, we look at it as the 'next guy up,''' Helfrich said. "And as I've said, if the guy that followed John Wooden quoted him every once in a while, would that have been that bad?''
The Ducks' flashy offense averaged 49.5 points per game last season, second in the nation, and was among the top five in rushing at 315.2 yards per game and total yards at 537.4. Oregon was adroit on defense, too, allowing 21.6 points a game and topping the nation with 40 takeaways.
While stars Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, John Boyett and Kenjon Barner have moved on to the NFL, Oregon is still rich with talent, including quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De'Anthony Thomas.
Mariota set the team's single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, five rushing, one receiving), surpassing the previous mark of 36 held by Darron Thomas (2011) and Akili Smith (1998). The first freshman named to the Pac-12 all-conference first team in 23 years, Mariota threw for 2,677 yards while completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes. He had 3,429 yards of offense, second to Smith's 3,947 in 1998.
"As far as ratio and numbers, this guy is the best quarterback in the country," Helfrich said. "But he doesn't care how many passing yards he has. He cares what it says before and after the hyphen in the team record, and that's how we operate."
There has been talk that Mariota will take to the air a little bit more under Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who was promoted to offensive coordinator when Helfrich became head coach.
Joining Mariota on the offense is Thomas, an explosive playmaker at both receiver and running back who scored every 9.2 times he touched the ball.
Thomas ran for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 45 passes for 445 yards and five more scores. He also scored on a kickoff return and a punt return, becoming the first Oregon player in 47 years with a touchdown four different ways.
Thomas hinted there may be a few tweaks of offense, or a "little more flavor," as he put it.
The most anticipated newcomer to the Ducks is home-state standout Thomas Tyner, who rushed for 3,415 yards for Aloha (Ore.) High School as a senior, setting a single-season rushing record for the state. On his 18th birthday last September, Tyner set a state record with 643 yards rushing and scored 10 touchdowns in an 84-63 victory over Lakeridge High School. It was the third-most ever for a prep player.
All of this seems like too much for Nicholls State to overcome in its first meeting with Oregon. The Colonels went 1-10 last year and concluded the season with a 77-3 loss to then-No. 16 Oregon State. Their only wins over the past two seasons came over Evangel, an NAIA school.
"The thing about the first game is you're going to find out a whole lot about your team," Nicholls State coach Charlie Stubbs said. "You're going to find some things are a bit better than you thought and some things, wow, you've got to work on a bit more."
Beaux Hebert, the son of former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, will start under center after passing for 315 yards in three games last season.
The Colonels had one of the worst defenses in the FCS last season, allowing an average of 38.7 points, and Oregon's Autzen Stadium record of 72 points could be in danger.