Helfrich opens his career as Oregon head coach

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- This is how the Mark Helfrich era begins at Oregon.The third-ranked Oregon Ducks host the lower-tier Nicholls State Colonels on Saturday, marking Helfrich's debut as head coach.

The team's former offensive coordinator took over when Chip Kelly left in January for the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly, credited with developing Oregon's breakneck spread offense, took ascending Oregon to a BCS bowl game in each of his four years as head coach, compiling a 46-7 record. The Ducks played in the 2011 national championship game against Auburn.

So it's no surprise that Helfrich says he won't change much now that he's in charge.

"I don't even own a stamp," he jokes about putting his own mark on the program. "That's the last thing on my mind. It doesn't even exist. If I can be the guy who won after Chip Kelly, I'm good with that."

Oregon finished 12-1 last season and defeated Kansas State 35-17 in the Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks' offense averaged 49.5 points per game, second in the nation, and was among the top five in rushing (315.2 yards per game) and in total yards (537.4 yards per game). Oregon was adroit on defense, too, allowing just 21.6 points a game and topping the nation with 40 takeaways.

While Helfrich says he'll maintain the status quo, he certainly plans to build on what he's got. Running back De'Anthony Thomas says the team has some "new flavor" to introduce and many expect sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota to add more passing to his repertoire under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Scott Frost.

"I'm down to throw the ball more," Mariota said. "But whatever coach Frost and coach Helfrich develop as a game plan, we'll be ready to execute it. If one week we throw the ball a little more, or another week the guys run the ball more, it's up to the coaches. And I'm looking forward to it."

Nicholls State has won just one game in each of the past two seasons, and was picked to finish last in the Southland Conference in a preseason poll of the league's coaches. The Colonels have never played a team ranked in the top 5.

Here are five things to watch when Nicholls State visits Oregon on Saturday:

PASSING FANCY? Quarterback Marcus Mariota made preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists, and for good reason. As a redshirt freshman last year, Mariota set the team's single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, five rushing, one receiving). While there's talk of more passing, no one is giving away the game plan. "We wouldn't trade him for anybody in the country," Frost said.

WHERE'S DAT?: De'Anthony Thomas is listed as a running back on the depth chart, but as anyone who has watched him knows, he's just as good at receiver. Which one would he rather play? Thomas says he's fine with both. Last season Thomas ran for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 45 passes for 445 yards and five more scores. He also scored on a kickoff return and a punt return. He was the first Oregon player in 47 years with a touchdown four different ways. "People want to know what's going on, so I try to give them a little bit. But like I said, I just want to contribute," Thomas said about his role.

OREGON TRAIL: The Colonels' last game was also in the state of Oregon. Nicholls State lost 77-3 to Oregon State in Corvallis on Dec. 1. The game, Nicholls State's first against a Pac-12 foe, was originally scheduled as the season opener but it was delayed when Hurricane Isaac bore down on Louisiana. The Colonels visited the state previously in 2003 when they were edged 44-37 at Portland State.

QB LEGACY: Nicholls State junior quarterback Beaux Hebert takes over as starter after Landry Klann sustained a shoulder injury that required surgery and sidelined him for the season. Hebert is the son of former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert. He has thrown for 569 yards and two touchdowns over the past two seasons, but competed this fall at the position with junior Kalen Henderson, a transfer from Tulsa. Henderson is expected to play in the opener, too.

NEW DEFENSE: The Colonels have installed a new defensive scheme, switching from a 3-4 package to a 3-3-5 to take advantage of a trio of senior safeties: T.J. Lumar, Jordan Hanberry and Siegan Vergenal. Hanberry's younger brother, Josh, is a wide receiver for the Colonels.