Helfrich: First Spring Football Practice
EUGENE – The friendship between Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu has been well documented.
They are so close that Mariota joked Tuesday following the team’s first spring practice that lately his friend feels a bit differently when they hugged.
“I can’t wrap my arms around Hroniss when I hug him anymore,” Mariota said with a laugh.
To be sure, Grasu has added some poundage. But it’s a good weight. Desired weight. It’s the kind of weight that will make him better, and it’s the type of weight that virtually every one of Oregon’s 15 offensive linemen also have added.
To say the Ducks offensive line hit the weight room hard during the winter would be an understatement. To hear Grasu and left tackle Tyler Johnstone describe it, the linemen practically assaulted the weight room.
Lifting weights became a competition that each man embraced in an effort to add strength and pounds, and to inspire one another to work harder than any had ever worked before.
“What’s nice is that they all knew that we had to get bigger and get stronger,” Grasu said. “I’m really proud of how the young guys competed in the weight room. They weren’t just in there getting their lift in and then leaving.”
The result is a group that collectively has gained 150 pounds since the Alamo Bowl. That's an average of 10 pounds per man.
The line wasn’t the only position that has had a good offseason. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said several players added “confidence weight,” including sophomore running back Thomas Tyner, listed at 201. Mariota said he’s up to 218.
“I think a lot of us felt that physically we needed to kind of up it a little bit and that first starts in the weight room,” Mariota said. “Guys are just motivated to kind of get better and hopefully hang on to their weight and still be fast.”
All told, the entire team left Helfrich quite pleased about its progress.
“We’re the biggest and fastest and strongest we’ve ever been, and now we have to turn that into functional football skill,” Helfrich said.
It could be said that the offensive line needed weight the most.
Grasu vowed last December that the linemen would undergo an offseason transformation in order to go from being considered a finesse group, reliant on pace and technique to one that could be physically dominant, especially against programs with bigger, tougher front sevens.
"Upfront we weren't nearly as physical as we needed to be," Helfrich said.
Johnstone said the group simply didn’t look the part, especially against big, physical teams like Stanford.
“We were kind of embarrassed last year,” he said. “Not because of our lack of skill. We still handled teams really, really well. But when we go out there, we’re not intimidating. We don’t pass the eye test and we want to start passing the eye test. We want that initial intimidation.”
Johnstone said he’s up to 285 pounds after playing last season at no more than 275. He hopes to be 295 by the fall.
Sophomore guard Cameron Hunt has gained 17 pounds to reach 282, according to the team’s roster.
None of the added weight, Grasu and Johnstone said, is bad weight.
There’s no gorging at the trough by this group.
“On the O-line we don’t eat like pigs,” Johnstone said. “You won’t see us at some pizza place eating 20 pizzas. We’re smart.”
Armed with knowledge by team nutritionists, the linemen have added muscle, while those who needed to do so trimmed fat. The players then burned those calories in the weight room in games of one-upmanship.
Whatever you can do, I can do better.
If one guy bench presses 300 pounds, Grasu said, the next guy would go for 305, and so on until guys reached their max and failed.
Over time, those maxes became higher and higher, resulting in a stronger, more muscular group.
Johnstone said the difference was noticeable at Tuesday's practice, conducted in shorts and shirts.
The hope now is not to lose speed along the way.
“We’ve just got to keep the same athleticism, the same speed and add more power,” Grasu said.
With added pounds, however, the group won’t have to simply rely on being technically sound and fast.
“If something kind of messes up in your technique, you can rely on your size to back you up,” Johnstone.
The line is far from a finished product. Continuing to increase the competitive atmosphere in the weight room is on the agenda.
“We want to try to be those freak beasts in the weight room,” Johnstone said.
The payoff: Being freak beasts on Saturdays in the fall.
“I’m kind of excited to go into a game and be a big guy for once,” Johnstone said.