Friday, September 28, 2012
Ducks on their best behavior
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
Last week may have been nothing more than a sweet spot in time for Oregon. You know the feeling. You catch every green light on the commute to work. You make a boatload of 8-foot putts. You flip the steak off the grill, slice it open, and the meat is just the right shade of pink.
It is a moment when the gods smile upon you, and just when you believe it's the new normal, it's gone.
Chip Kelly and his staff have noticed a marked difference in the makeup of this year's Oregon team.
Oregon didn't just defeat Arizona last Saturday night. The Ducks won 49-0, a performance stunning in its domination. But that domination alone is not what stood out.
No, what stood out after the game was the homage paid by Oregon head coach Chip Kelly and his staff to the players. Four different members of the Oregon coaching staff made comments last weekend, outside of earshot of one another, about the mental makeup of the 2012 Ducks.
On the day before the game, Jeff Hawkins, the director of operations with 32 seasons of administrative and coaching experience in college and pro football, said unsolicited, "It's the best group of kids I've ever been around."
After the game, defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, a 37-year coaching veteran, said, "Anything is possible with these kids. They listen. They're a great group of kids. They practice hard. They work hard. It's all the kind of things you want your kids to do. You want your kids to listen to you. These guys actually listen better than my kids do sometimes."
Kelly watched the Ducks perform last week and liked it so much that he cut short their Friday practice.
"We went on a walk this morning," Kelly said after the game. "They were great on the walk."
A great walk?
"We line up," Kelly described. "We're two by two. We're by number. Offense is on one side. Defense is on another. Dialed in, listening. Our strength coach [Jim Radcliffe] gives them a little talk. As I told them, it wasn't like an elementary school field trip, where you're worried about guys running in different directions. They were really good. They were focused."
Keep in mind that Oregon is a team that has been known for straying in the wrong directions. Former quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was arrested and charged with burglary two years ago for stealing a laptop. Former All-American kick returner Cliff Harris was cited last year for driving 118 mph without a license in the wee hours of the morning.
There has been a DUI or two, as recently as last spring, when ESPN The Magazine also reported that the Ducks know their way around a bong.
That is the past that causes anyone who writes that the Ducks have become the model of locker-room decorum to cock an eyebrow. But that past, the players say, is exactly what has caused them to behave like choirboys -- at least, very fast choirboys.
"We had a couple of years of turmoil," senior linebacker Michael Clay said by phone this week. "We don't want to go down that road anymore."
Kenjon Barner realizes how a team can benefit from the right attitude.
Kelly kicked both Masoli and Harris off the team. Others have been separated from the locker room, too. Senior tailback Kenjon Barner said the Ducks took that message to heart.
"Being in college, it's not a right. It's a privilege," Barner said. "You've earned a privilege to be here. With privilege come responsibilities. One guy can ruin a team. One attitude can create something within a team that, as a coaching staff or as a player, you don't want."
Kelly took a lot of grief for his players' miscreant behavior. But he and his staff say they have changed their recruiting. They say they will not recruit a bad actor, no matter how fast he runs a 40. They won't even recruit a player who fails to arrive at high school on time. It speaks to a lack of responsibility, if not a lack of respect. They believe that last week's performance is evidence of their change in philosophy.
"In 37 years," Aliotti said, "the best football teams that I've ever been around are the teams that are self-policed right now, this team is self-policed. Hopefully, we'll keep it going."
Aliotti described it as "horizontal leadership as well as vertical leadership."
Barner described a practice for the Arizona game in which the coaches explained the plays in a walk-through, and the Ducks performed them later in practice without a slipup. That's what led to the biggest margin of victory in a conference game in Kelly's 27 Pac-12 victories.
"Last week will be what we hold as our judgment scale," Barner said, "what we base whether we have good practices or not. As the coaches said, last week was a great week. The attention to the minor details was so on point, it was amazing. That's what we're going to hold ourselves to."
The game Saturday night at Washington State will put Oregon on that judgment scale. Washington State has lost six consecutive games to Oregon by margins ranging from 11 to 49 points. If the Ducks fail to focus, it will mean that the performance against Arizona was nothing more than a sweet spot in time. The Oregon coaches and players believe it was more.