EUGENE -- As an agile and experienced junior last fall, running back Kani Benoit had come to know his way both around the football field, gaining 6.4 yards every time he touched the ball, and the Oregon Ducks program he's called home since 2013.
Then in November, Mark Helfrich, the coach whose first recruiting class included Benoit, was fired and the rest of his staff let go after a 4-8 season. Much of what he'd come to expect from the program was about to change, too.
Staffers inside the football offices were reassigned. New customs were introduced and old ones went by the wayside. Mentions of the previous era's "Win The Day" slogan have been minimized or scrubbed from the walls entirely. Under new coach Willie Taggart, everything about Oregon football was up for re-evaluation, and the longest-tenured Ducks on the roster would have been excused had they begun questioning their own usefulness to the new leadership, too.
"There's always that unexpected, that uncertainty," Benoit said.
In big-time college athletics, one of the loneliest places to be is in the shoes of a senior whose program has just hired a new coach. A coach who didn't recruit you, and whose philosophy and playbook might not have room for your skillset. In scenarios like these, seniors can feel like "The Expendables."
But earlier this month, a few days before spring football began at Oregon, Benoit and the rest of Oregon's seniors gathered for a meeting that Taggart had called to assuage any football fears. The message: We won't get this thing turned around unless you're part of it.
"It showed interest," running back Royce Freeman said. "We have only a short amount of time here and (Taggart) knows that. He expressed that he wants to get to know us as much as possible before we leave and take off -- not just brush us under the rug and focus on the players that are younger and have some years left."
For both Taggart and the seniors, the meeting was a chance to improve UO's future through learning from past mistakes.
In hindsight, Taggart said, he didn't cater enough to the seniors he inherited upon taking over at Western Kentucky in 2010 and South Florida in 2013. At Oregon, he wanted seniors to buy in and create a model for younger teammates to follow, and so he told them they were as valued in UO's rebuilding project as an incoming recruit.
"Sometimes guys think, 'OK new coach, they don't want anything to do with us,'" Taggart said. "(The meeting was) just letting them know that's not the case. We're all in this together and these guys I want to leave here with a good taste in their mouth.
"I want them to leave here saying that hey, we got this thing back on track and be proud of that when they leave here."
Said receiver Charles Nelson: "It just show that he cares about us as a group and individuals. This was our team before he got here, and he just wants us to keep it going."
What the seniors say they couldn't afford to keep going, however, was the leadership void that led to several instances of public finger-pointing during UO's five-game losing streak last season. That team, as was standard during Helfrich's tenure, practiced a "horizontal" approach to player-led leadership, in which the words of any player, regardless of seniority, held the same weight. It worked, until it didn't.
In 2017, players say, that approach has been flipped to more of a top-down style. Everyone is still expected to pipe up when an issue arises. But the buck stops with the roster's elders.
"It should be the seniors to step up," Benoit said. "I would just say it is on our shoulders."
Redshirt freshman safety Brady Breeze said the seniors' efforts, with an emphasis on "us, not me, me, me," have been noted, and welcomed.
"I feel like the older guys are definitely like, 'OK this is my last year, I'm not going to let it happen like what happened last year,'" Breeze said. "'I'm going to make sure that this year is a really good year, and we maybe get to go to a Rose Bowl or a national championship.' We're not setting the bar low."
Fulfilling such expectations of leadership and production is easier said than done. Running back Royce Freeman, the UO senior with the most star power, has been called out by Taggart as someone he'd like to see lead behind the scenes as effortlessly as he creates highlights on the field. Being vocal, Freeman said, is "nothing that comes natural to me," yet daily after practice he's made a priority of talking more often, and to more teammates than those already in his close circle.
"Branching out," Freeman said. "Stepping out of my realm of comfort and just talking more to the offense, talking more to guys on defense, being more of a leader, big brother. That's some thing I just have to work on."
It's not only the seniors who have had much to work on this offseason. Last season's team was one of the country's most-penalized, worst-tackling and, offensively, slowest-starting teams. Turning that around, Ducks say, doesn't happen overnight and this offseason building trust in the locker room has been as important as improving technique on the field.
"We all feed off each other, but the seniors should be picking up the other guys," senior defensive lineman Elijah George said. "I think we're more connected with each other now. See each other a lot more and interact with each other a lot more."
Though Taggart has opened position competitions to players of all classes and a few freshmen have taken advantage so far, seniors figure to leave a mark on 2017. Due to injuries in the backfield to Taj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James, Freeman and Benoit have taken the bulk of the carries this spring against a first-team defense featuring seniors including such as George, defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux, linebackers AJ Hotchkins and Jimmie Swain and corner Arrion Springs.
Having already established himself during his previous three seasons at UO, Benoit said the introduction to the new staff naturally came with some concerns. But he didn't stress too much.
"When they turn on tape they'll see us, they'll see the seniors who have produced here," Benoit said. "That's for all the other seniors, too: If you're a playmaker, they're going to need you, regardless."
-- Andrew Greif
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