Don't ask why they call it Fall Camp. It's a drive-in-the-parkway/park-in-the-driveway kind of thing, like baseball's Spring Training, all but of a week of which happens when most of the country is still wearing coats and scraping the windshield. It's a harbinger, a hint of hopes and glories to come, a time for optimism to spring eternal. Every pitching staff looks promising in the spring, and rookie outfielders from Sewanee or Pawtucket look good until the veterans dust off their best curve balls. Every secondary looks stout in Fall Camp, until the All-American they face in game 3 busts off a double move on his way to the end zone and the NFL combine.
It's a cruel thing to ask an athlete for his impressions of "Fall" Camp, when it's 95 degrees out and his shoulder pads are still slightly damp from the morning workout. He goes with it because he's learning his cliches. "I just want to help the team, you know, get better every day." With a microphone in front of them the kids are in midseason form. Most of the time, though, the Oregon kids are invariably polite and well-spoken with the media, a testament to their overall character. They leave it to their coach to practice the evasions and ball-busting retorts. No one can fend off the press like Chip Kelly. He's Bobby Knight without the coarse belligerence. Kelly does it with a quick wit and sneaky humor, verbal slap boxing, and it's kind of entertaining to watch. Occasionally a one-word reply can hang in the air and it becomes awkward, the beat writers waiting for elaboration that will never come. It's a mistake to press him. "Do you think there's a danger waiting to name a starter might impede the team's focus?" "No." The "no" hangs in the air like a bad smell, impossible to ignore, too awkward to say anything about.
We'll never be able to ask, but we all wonder how tomorrow's scrimmage weighs in key personnel decisions on the two-deep. Who starts at the other corner, the other defensive tackle, and what's the rotation among the backup receivers? Which kicker lines up for field goals at Tennessee? And then the headliner question, who's the number one quarterback?
My sense is in all these areas it will be a body-of-work deal, that even if we or the media were allowed to view Thursday's scrimmage we wouldn't see anything like a seminal moment when Costa or Thomas dropped back and threw the ball that won them the job forever. It won't come down to a two-minute drill from their own 30 or a final play, or their last three reps of the zone read. Chip Kelly and Steve Greatwood have careful, practiced eyes. I don't have the same level of confidence in Mark Helfrich, but's that's only because he's relatively new in the program and he keeps such a low profile as an offensive coordinator. Rightly or wrongly Chip Kelly gets credit for the offense.
Duck fans (don't ever, ever call us a Nation--we're a worldwide movement of grass roots excellence) have debated this with fervor, but as a group they've expressed a lot of trust in the coaching staff on this position battle. Kelly, Helfrich and Greatwood don't seem to have any snafus in the chain of command. There's little chance of the field goal team going out at the wrong time with this staff. They don't make snap decisions or careless assumptions. The decision will be made with confidence, and then they'll go to work breaking down New Mexico.
Who starts or who doesn't doesn't really worry me. That will sort itself out. It always does. The worry is an unspeakable one, tough to bring up, because it comes close to a taboo, like mentioning a no-hitter out loud.
Cover this up with your hand if you're superstitious. It's this: so far the Ducks have had a perfect camp. Not perfect in terms of every practice rep being perfect, but perfect in terms of focus, tempo, getting their work in, young players emerging, veterans improving and taking leadership roles, and effort and enthusiasm and attention.
Only one thing could spoil it. Tomorrow there will be full-bore hitting, and thus far they've avoided a catastrophic injury or the loss of a starter. Tennessee lost two defensive linemen in the first week of camp. UCLA's starter at quarterback is nursing an injury to his back or an oblique muscle that's severely limited his preparation. Other than a scare for Barner and James, which proved to be nothing serious, and the usual nicks and dings of Fall Camp (that phrase again) the Ducks have had very little collateral damage over these twenty practices. Some of the credit has to go to the training and conditioning program overseen by Jim Radcliffe. The Ducks are focused, well-conditioned and relatively healthy, and that has made this a perfect camp.
Only one thing could spoil it. Play hard tomorrow, Ducks. And walk to the O games healthy.