Not the most familiar name to casual Duck fans. He doesn’t roam the secondary or sack quarterbacks for the Ducks. He isn’t even on the sidelines for Duck games. But he is of the utmost importance to Oregon football, and his relevance is growing every day.
Helfrich, the Ducks’ offensive coordinator who directs the yard-eating and touchdown-scoring Oregon offense from the sky-high coaches box, is the man many expect to replace current head coach Chip Kelly, should Kelly pursue a job in the NFL.
The 39-year-old Medford native had his playing days at Southern Oregon University, playing QB from 1992 to 1995 after passing on a walk-on chance at Oregon. He was a graduate assistant for Oregon in 1997, while Dirk Koetter was offensive coordinator in Eugene. Helfrich took a quarterbacks coach position at Boise State in 1998 when Koetter went to Boise as offensive coordinator. Helfrich would follow Koetter to Arizona State in 2001 to continue mentoring passers. In 2006, Helfrich added offensive coordinator to his resume at Colorado and in 2009 when Chip Kelly become head coach at UO, Helfrich returned to his home state to fill the same position he held in Boulder.
While at UO, “Coach Helf,” as players and other coaches call him, has mentored dual-threat quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota in the read-option scheme. Kelly still calls the plays for Oregon’s offense but if he is in the driver’s seat, then Helfrich is sitting shotgun with a road map. Helfrich is an integral part to the Oregon offensive method that has spurred the Ducks in their recent success.
Supreme football schools like Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State, Florida and USC don’t typically promote from within, as they have the privilege of plucking the best coaches from other teams. But for Oregon, the case is different. It could be because the Ducks are new to the realm of the elite and don’t yet operate this way. Or it could be that the Ducks’ current scheme is just too different to bring a fresh face to lead, or just too special to scrap for a new course chosen by a new driver. The way Oregon operates is best illustrated by the coaching changes made before 2009.
When Mike Bellotti jumped from head coach to athletic director, offensive coordinator Kelly moved into the vacancy but held on to his play-calling duties. Helfrich took Kelly’s old spot as offensive coordinator, even though he had never run anything like Kelly’s offense, and he also took on the role of Oregon quarterbacks coach.
When Kelly seemed to have taken the cap off the pen to ink a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past offseason, there was no evident plan in place, at least from a public perspective. Oregon could have searched outside the program or promoted from within.
John Canzano of The Oregonian wrote that “the worst-kept secret buried in Kelly’s refusal to accept the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job months ago was that, as he mulled over the NFL offer, Kelly couldn’t get a promise from (athletic director Rob) Mullens assuring Helfrich would be his successor.”
Over this 2012 season it seems as though that promise may now be in place or is at least the primary option should Kelly leave for the NFL. Why is that? Because, it seems, Oregon is committed to a scheme. A blueprint that has resulted in four consecutive BCS bowl appearances is in place and has been the artistry of a brain trust that has included Kelly, Helfrich and a plethora of Ducks coaches. To bring in another coach would likely mean a offensive scheme switch that may or may not properly utilize the type of athletes Kelly and has staff have assembled over the past few years, as well as the upcoming recruiting class.
Despite the fact that he did not run the read-option offense before meeting Kelly, Helfrich is the only prophet with capable knowledge to continue in Kelly’s wake. If Helfrich becomes head coach, it has been speculated that current receivers coach Scott Frost could become offensive coordinator and, much like when Kelly was promoted, Helfrich would keep the play-calling responsibility.
It is worth saying Oregon has only had three head coaches since 1977, with the last two having achieved their top position after serving as offensive coordinator for Oregon. Adam Jude, also for The Oregonian, reportedly has a UO source that claims Helfrich is a virtual-lock for the replacement job and that Ducks’ super-booster Phil Knight approves of Helfrich’s potential promotion.