Scott Frost out to keep Oregon's offense humming in 2013
EUGENE, Ore. -- Scott Frost knows what it's like to fill immense shoes. In 1996, the then-Nebraska quarterback took over for two-time national champion Tommie Frazier. He proceeded to lose his second start, 19-0 at Arizona State. The ensuing criticism was relentless. "I learned the lesson in college," he said. "I won't ever pick up a paper."
Frost, who wound up leading the Huskers to another national title the following season, may soon find himself under similar scrutiny as he's compared to yet another acclaimed predecessor. This fall, Oregon's newly promoted offensive coordinator will succeed Chip Kelly as the play-caller for the Ducks' trademark blur offense.
"It's big shoes to fill," the 38-year-old said last week from behind his desk in Oregon's dazzling new football facility. "We've had arguably the top offense in the country during Chip's tenure here."
The Ducks went 46-7 and played in four straight BCS bowls under Kelly, success that was generated largely behind a cutting-edge, high-tempo spread offense that averaged 49.5 points and 537.4 yards per game in 2012. With new head coach Mark Helfrich keeping Kelly's system intact and stars like quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back De'Anthony Thomas and tight end Colt Lyerla all returning, pundits are widely expecting a smooth transition; Oregon finished last season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll and begins this season at No. 3.
"There's so many pieces in place and our kids already know the system," said Frost, formerly the Ducks' receivers coach under Kelly. "So we don't really have to start from scratch. We have a road map for what we've done the last four years here."
Carrying on Kelly's "Win the Day" mantra falls first and foremost on Helfrich, 39, a Medford, Ore., native who attained his dream job after Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles in January. (Kelly, it turns out, would have faced an 18-month NCAA show-cause penalty for the Will Lyles scandal had he stayed.) Helfrich knows better than to mess with a perfectly good system. Oregon will run many of the same plays and is practicing at the same frenetic speed -- if not faster.
"Because of [Kelly's] attitude, our players played with reckless abandon and absolutely no fear," said Frost. "Mark has been exceptional with that too since taking over, at not only maintaining that type of attitude but building on it."
Kelly's cocksure demeanor also manifested itself in his play-calling. The Ducks often went for it on fourth down. They eschewed extra points in favor of two-point conversions. Even when the offense started slowly out of the gate, Kelly kept pecking at defenses until they inevitably cracked.
"One of the things that made Chip so good as a play-caller was he had answers to the [opponents'] answers, because he knew the offense so well. It was his design," said Smart Football's Chris Brown. "Chip would make some subtle adjustments during games in terms of blocking schemes, that you didn't even realize that he'd done, and before you can react they've already marched down the field and scored two touchdowns."
In his old role as offensive coordinator, Helfrich was deeply involved in that process. He game-planned throughout the week and served as Kelly's eyes above the field in the press box during games. "He was constantly in Chip's ear," said Frost. So with Kelly gone, it stood to reason that his former coordinator would take over play-calling responsibilities himself.
But after watching Frost call plays during spring practice, Helfrich, who will coach from the sideline this season for the first time in more than a decade, elected to take a broader management approach than his predecessor.
"We lost a lot of great leaders [on defense] like Michael Clay and Dion Jordan, some of the best leaders I've ever been around," Helfrich said "... I wanted to be able to, if you're playing defensive back, I want to be able to look into your eye at any given time."
Frost, who came to Oregon in 2009 after serving as co-defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa, lays claim to an all-star roster of coaching mentors. He played under Bill Walsh at Stanford in 1993 and '94 before transferring to Nebraska, where his coach was Hall of Famer Tom Osborne. As a rookie defensive back with the New York Jets, his head coach was Bill Parcells and his position coach was Bill Belichick. And he grew close enough with Kelly to join him on a 2012 adventure running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
"He's been around great coaches and then has kept that and translated that into being a very good conduit to the players," said Helfrich. "I think he has a really bright future for sure."
Kelly's attack-dog mentality will guide Frost as a play-caller, but so will a simple lesson Frost learned from four years spent listening to Kelly and Helfrich on his headset.
"There's never a perfect play, but if you put your best players in position to make the play, that's when good things happen," Frost said. "We have so many options of what to call, I think you could go crazy figuring out the best thing against all these crazy looks we get. At the end of the day, if we get the ball in the hands of De'Anthony or Marcus or [receiver] Josh Huff, we have a good chance of winning."
Play-calling at Oregon is intensified by the breakneck speed at which it operates. With an average of 15 seconds between spot and snap, the coach begins anticipating his next call as soon as the current one is signaled. What's unclear is how the dynamic between Helfrich and Frost will operate now that the former no longer has his vantage point upstairs.
"I probably won't be quite as efficient as [Helfrich] was in the box, being able to watch 22 guys and decipher what's happening while trying to decide on a play and spit out the next play," said Frost. "But Mark is so good at seeing things and recognizing them that I'm sure he'll be able to help me out with calls from the sideline."
In addition to his coordinator duties, Frost will coach the position he played in college for the first time in his career. That means mentoring Mariota, the nation's seventh-rated passer in 2012 and the most complete quarterback at Oregon since Dennis Dixon led Kelly's first offense in 2007.
"To be able to have someone that's done it at such a high level, now I get to sit in a meeting room and learn from him, that's awesome," Mariota said of Frost. "He always has a few stories. Usually when he wants to teach us about a life lesson he usually tends to refer to himself. I think that's cool in the fact it really is pretty relatable. He was just where we're at, where we're sitting, not too long ago."
No matter where he travels in the world -- from the Trevi Fountain in Rome to the streets of Denmark -- Frost inevitably gets recognized and approached by Nebraska fans. To this point, however, he's remained largely anonymous at Oregon, save for the time he pulled LeGarrette Blount off the field during his post-game meltdown at Boise State.
"I'm proud of what we did at Nebraska," Frost said, "but sooner or later I'd like to change that."
That could happen as soon as this season. If Oregon contends for another Pac-12 and national title, Frost will quickly become the hot coordinator who continued Kelly's legacy. But in the event the Ducks lose more than once and struggle on offense? Well, best to keep steering clear of the papers.