Oregon and several NFL teams will vie for the services of Ducks coach Chip Kelly.
The Oregon Ducks enter the offseason with uncertainty over coach Chip Kelly’s continued tenure and possible NCAA sanctions.
But at the same time the team faces a future with a strong foundation that includes redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota and speedy sophomore running back De’Anthony Thomas.
Fifth-ranked Oregon finished this season 12-1 with a 35-17 victory over No. 7 Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the Ducks’ fourth straight trip to a BCS bowl game and second straight win.
It is also the third season that Oregon has finished with 12 wins. The team’s lone loss this season came to Stanford on Nov. 17.
But since a 48-24 victory over Oregon State in the Civil War, much of the focus has been on Kelly and whether he’ll make the jump to the NFL.
At least three pro teams appear to have interest in Kelly, who devised Oregon’s quick-strike spread offense, including the Cleveland Browns, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Buffalo Bills. And the Ducks would no doubt love to keep him, too.
It seems inevitable that Kelly will leave. Last year in the offseason he entertained interest from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but decided to stay at Oregon because of “unfinished business.”
Ducks fans at the Fiesta Bowl made their feelings clear by chanting “We want Chip!” during the victory celebration. Nike co-founder and Oregon mega-booster Phil Knight proclaimed to a reporter following the game: “I was one of `em.”
The buyout for Kelly’s contract with Oregon is $3.5 million.
“I’ll listen and we’ll see,” Kelly said about his NFL courters. He also said he hopes to wrap up a decision quickly.
A person close to the team who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Kelly’s future had not yet been decided told The Associated Press that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich is considered the frontrunner to succeed Kelly as head coach, but Oregon state law says that the Ducks must interview at least one qualified minority candidate for the job.
Whoever the new coach might be will likely have to deal with the fallout from an NCAA investigation into the school’s use of recruiting services.
The inquiry is the result of reports that surfaced in 2011 concerning payments Oregon made to two such services, including a $25,000 check sent to Willie Lyles and Houston-based Complete Scouting Services in 2010. Lyles had a relationship with a player who committed to Oregon.
Last month, Yahoo Sports reported that Oregon is headed toward a hearing with the NCAA committee on infractions because the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on appropriate sanctions. Yahoo cited two unidentified sources.
Earlier this year, Oregon requested a summary disposition in the case. The school presented a report to the infractions committee outlining violations the school believed occurred and appropriate sanctions. But that request was apparently turned down.
The NCAA does not comment on ongoing investigations.
“We’ve cooperated fully with them. If they want to talk to us again, we’ll continue to cooperate fully,” Kelly said. “I feel confident in the situation.”
While Oregon awaits the hearing, which could be scheduled as early as this spring, the Ducks appear solid on the field for next season and perhaps beyond with rising offensive stars Mariota and Thomas.
Mariota set the team’s single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, 5 rushing, 1 receiving), surpassing the previous mark of 36 held by Darron Thomas (2011) and Akili Smith (1998).
The first freshman named to the Pac-12’s all-conference first team in 23 years, Mariota passed for 2,739 yards, completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes. He had 3,429 yards of total offense, second only to Smith’s 3,947 in 1998.
The 6-foot-4 dual-threat quarterback from Hawaii credited Kelly for the season.
“The success, all that’s happening with this offense is from him. To be able to just kind of go through that and to learn from it, you know, it’s going to make me a better quarterback for future years,” Mariota said.
Then there’s Thomas, who scored on a 94-yard return of the opening kickoff Thursday against Kansas State. It was the longest all-purpose play in Oregon bowl history.
Thomas has a school-record 509 all-purpose yards on just 19 touches in his two career bowl games.
The Fiesta Bowl was the final game for several notable Oregon players, including running back Kenjon Barner, who broke out in his senior season after the departure of LaMichael James to the NFL.
Barner finished the season with 1,767 yards rushing, second-best in school history to James’ 1,805 yards last season.
For his career, Barner finished with 5,848 all-purpose yards, 21 yards shy of James’ career record. His 42 career touchdowns are also second to James (58) in the Ducks’ record book.
The defensive side loses senior linebacker Michael Clay, one of the team’s leaders. The senior had nine tackles in the Fiesta Bowl and was named the defensive player of the game.
“Right now, things are a lot more surreal than anything else,” he said afterward. “ The last time playing with these guys, taking off the pads, the last time in an Oregon jersey. You’re kind of surreal and in a daze right now.”
Kelly spoke after the Fiesta Bowl almost as though he was saying goodbye, too, although only time will tell.
“It’s a special place with special people. They accepted me six years ago when I was at New Hampshire. Not many people knew about me,” Kelly said. “Gave me an opportunity to come here. It really means a lot.”
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