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by: COURTESY OF GREG WAHL-STEPHENS - DeAnthony Thomas returns as Oregons leading potential playmaker.The theme of the 2013 Oregon Ducks has been firmly established by fans and friendly media: No changes after Chip Kelly’s departure. Mark Helfrich takes over the Good Ship Chip, the Ducks keep rolling behind QB Marcus Mariota and playmaker De’Anthony Thomas, and Oregon lands in another BCS game, maybe the national championship.

It has to happen, right? It’s a program that couldn’t take a turn for the worse, could it?

Well, except Kelly’s gone and Helfrich is next man in.

Kelly had the “it” factor, going back to his first year as offensive coordinator in 2007. He was a different dude, and made his mark. He had a brilliant football mind — at least on the college level — and was a transcendent figure as head coach. He put a significant stamp on the program.

Helfrich? Kelly’s former offensive coordinator doesn’t strike me as a fellow who has the “it” factor.

Stamp on the program?

“I do not own a stamp, don’t even have a pen on me.” he says. “If I could be known as the guy who followed Chip Kelly and continued the winning, I’m good with that.”

What difference does Helfrich make as head man?

“I don’t know. Obviously, that’s what everybody will make a big deal out of, and I have no idea,” he says.

“Our biggest strength is our players believing in our system,” he adds. “Going back to Coach (Rich) Brooks, (Mike) Bellotti and Chip, there’s such a great culture here of how to work, who to recruit, and all the things that go into that.”

Receiver Bralon Addison calls Helfrich and new offensive coordinator Scott Frost “Batman and Robin” and “big-time players’ coaches.” Addison says Frost will “add another dimension to this offense — and it’s going to be that much better.”

Linebacker Boseko Lokombo says Helfrich is “doing everything that Chip has set up for us to do. He’s doing exactly what he should be doing. The transition has been flawless.”

Addison predicts big things for the Ducks. Brooks helped them reach regional prominence and the Rose Bowl, Bellotti ushered in the era of national cache and won the Fiesta Bowl. Kelly produced four consecutive BCS teams.

“They get a new head coach and the program gets that much better every time,” Addison says. “Coach Helfrich is going to take this program to the next level that it’s ready for.”

I’m still struck, though, by the fact that Helfrich has done everything in his power to downplay his role.

Can the Ducks dictate games with the running game, as Kelly emphasized? Does Mariota throw the ball more? The defense looks solid, although the linebacking is raw, and one assumes the turnovers forced will keep coming, but a lot of teams move the ball in college.

The biggest key: Most teams have moved toward uptempo offensive pace and are getting better defending against it, so is that still an advantage for the Ducks?

I think the Ducks will take a step back without Kelly. The Pac-12, outside of Colorado and probably Cal, has improved. More teams are capable

of knocking off the Ducks. Games will be closer. I see two to four possible Pac-12 losses (Washington, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona or Oregon State). And, while I would think the Ducks would get by Virginia on the road

and Tennessee at home, I wouldn’t guarantee it.

What anyone can guarantee: The Ducks will whip Nicholls State in Saturday’s opener, but that indicates nothing for the rest of the season.

Game 1 PICK

• Oregon 52, Nicholls State 10

— Jason Vondersmith