When Rivals top 100 wide receiver Theo Howard used Twitter on Monday to announce that he was planning to enroll at the University of Oregon in January, the decision was viewed as the first domino continuing the class of 2015’s trend – when quarterback Travis Jonsen, running back Taj Griffin, wide receiver Alex Ofodile, defensive lineman Canton Kaumatule, offensive lineman Zach Okun and cornerback Ugo Amadi all enrolled early.

In truth, he is simply one of five 2016 commits (so far) who has decided to begin college early, as four-star quarterback Seth Green, four-star defensive back Troy Warner, four-star wide receiver Dillon Mitchell and three-star offensive lineman Jacob Capra have all set up plans to enroll at the University of Oregon before the completion of the 2015-2016 school year.

Even Howard, himself, wasn’t fully aware of the 2016 early graduate numbers until Green created a text message group for Oregon commits Monday evening.

According to Howard, that group text message thread was designed, in part, for the early enrollees to build a bond before moving to Eugene.

“It was a big factor. We’ve all seen each other on Twitter before, and looked each other up. We are just trying to get to build a relationship before we get up there,” he explained. “I knew Dillon and Troy were going to graduate early. I asked (Green) if he was enrolling early (after the announcement) and he said he was.”

Warner, who is taking extra classes this spring in order to ensure early graduation, shared those sentiments.

“The purpose of it was so we could all start bonding with each other, so we’d have a good relationship,” he explained. “I think we’ll benefit a lot.”

Early enrollment for star Oregon recruits has clearly developed into a trend, but painting the inspiration for that movement with a broad stroke is difficult.

It’s taken some nudging by the coaching staff, the recruitment of players hungry to make their mark, the recruiting efforts of the Ducks who came before and success on the field for the cycle to develop, but Oregon appears to be on course for back-to-back classes ready-made for spring competition.

The class of 2015

The exact reason why the Ducks’ class of 2015 was the start of something special when it came to early enrollment is difficult to pin down.

One year prior, dynamic four-star wide receiver Jalen Brown was the lone high school product to enroll early, joining Cal transfer Johnny Ragin and junior college cornerback Dominique Harrison in a three-man group that wasn’t particularly shocking.

But the class of 2015 was different. Not only did the Ducks land several all-American prospects, but (almost unanimously) those players decided to enroll early.

For many, such as U.S. Army All-American offensive lineman Zach Okun and Under Armour All-American wide receiver Alex Ofodile, the excitement of a national championship run was the catalyst for an idea that was realized through academic success and a desire to play early.

But even those reasons weren’t universal.

Running back Taj Griffin, considered a five-star prospect before tearing his ACL, wasn’t planning to enroll early until his injury. But after an official visit to campus, he and his family decided the quickest and safest way for him to return to 100 percent was to rehab with the trainers in Eugene.

“(The trainer) said I should definitely be back by the beginning of the season and ready to play next year,” Griffin told The Oregonian/OregonLive before signing day. “They’re really excited for me. They have the facilities to get me back.”

The gem of the 2015 class, five-star defensive lineman Canton Kaumatule, had the body of a true freshman impact player, but didn’t anticipate enrolling early until he knew he was part of a group. Once he realized several of the other high-caliber freshmen would be joining him, the 6-foot-7, 295-pound mauler followed suit.

“Honestly, I talked to (Oregon) coach (Erik) Chinander around the time it first came out and he had told me that I wouldn’t be alone,” he said. “I admit, I was kind of nervous about going out early. I didn’t want to be the only guy up there, but he told me there are (several) other guys going.”

Even U.S. Army All-American quarterback Travis Jonsen, whose school doesn’t allow early graduation, found a way to enroll at Oregon early. Although, admittedly, he relied heavily on his mother, who ensured he joined the flock of prospects meeting up in Eugene.

“I wouldn’t say it was stressful or it was easy, but I think when she supports something, she definitely supports it. She figured out that was the best situation for me to compete, so she wanted me to have every advantage that I can,” Jonsen said. “She was willing to do whatever it took to get me there early. I’m not too sure what she had to do, but she got it done which is what I’m really happy for. I know my school might not be too happy, but I just really hope they understand my situation and support it no matter what.”

Kaumatule’s impact was felt in the spring game, as he registered 2.5 sacks, while Jonsen, Okun, Ofodile and cornerback Ugo Amadi have been given the opportunity to compete for playing time this fall. Even Griffin, who is recovering from his injury, has seen the benefit of early enrollment.

It appears, at least in part, their successful transition has paved the way for the next collection of instant impact enrollees.

The class of 2016

Howard, who runs a 4.38 40-yard dash, doesn’t remember when the idea of enrolling early first seriously entered his mind, but he knows how it began to fester.

“I’m good friends with Travis (Jonsen) and Zach Okun – those two graduated early – I talked to them about it,” he explained. “Travis asked me if I wanted to get up there early. At first it was a sidenote, but then I thought about it and came to the conclusion.”

Howard said the idea was also floated to him by the Oregon coaching staff during his decision-sealing unofficial visit.

“Coach Lubick and Coach Helfrich and (Director of Player Personnel Jim) Fisher, when I went on the visit, talked to me about it,” he explained. “I just thought it over and felt like that was the best thing to do.”

That same sentiment is shared by Mitchell, who was equally adamant the idea was a suggestion from the coaching staff rather than an expectation.

“I believe Jim Fisher recommended it – talking with Coach Helfrich,” he said. “They thought it was the best thing for me to do.”

Similar to the class of 2015, however, the origins of the decision to enroll early are far from unanimous.

Warner insisted the idea was his own, and that he had never seriously discussed his initial plans with anyone on the Oregon coaching staff.

“We are taking it upon ourselves,” he said. “We know the advantages that come from graduating early. I’ll have a big advantage coming in early, learning the scheme and getting in the weight room.”

Despite the various reasons for early enrollment, the group of five all agreed that it wasn’t until Howard’s Twitter announcement that they finally started bonding together in preparation for the college transition. 

“We actually just started a group chat of guys who are enrolling early,” Warner explained Monday evening. “I kind of had an idea of who was going early and tried to connect with those guys so I would have a connection with those guys when I go up in January.”

Early enrollment

“Everybody’s situation is different, but I think that it could help me compete for playing time freshman year and getting adjust to the (scheme),” Howard explained in an answer that has been echoed by several Oregon early enrollees from the past two classes.

Winning and character.

Perhaps no two aspects of the 10 early enrollees in the past two years are as universal as those two. Each of the 10 prospects has expressed a desperate desire to win and all 10 appear equally driven in the classroom.

No secret. No behind-the-scenes pressure. Just Oregon recruiting prospects who excel on the field and in the classroom.

Frankly, it seems as obvious an explanation as any.

— Andrew Nemec
anemec@oregonian.com
@AndrewNemec    

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