The state of Oregon Ducks football recruiting: What a Heisman and a title run … – OregonLive.com
No program in college football has more wins over the past four seasons than the Oregon Ducks.
In victories, they are No. 1. In recruiting, the Ducks, who compete in a state that doesn’t develop many FBS stars, have put together a top-15 recruiting class only a handful of times in school history.
That hasn’t happened by accident.
The nucleus of the Oregon coaching staff has been together more than two decades, a streak that is practically the clipboard equivalent of Brett Favre’s consecutive NFL starts streak (321) or Cal Ripken Jr.’s baseball record for consecutive games played (2,632).
Of course, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. No team has had more success developing big-time college football talent at quarterback and running back than Oregon over the past 20 years:
Quarterbacks: Danny O’Neil (1991-95, Rose Bowl co-MVP), Tony Graziani (1994-96, 7th round pick), Akili Smith (1997-98, 1st round pick), A.J. Feeley (1999, 5th round pick), Joey Harrington (1999-2001, 1st round pick), Jason Fife (2002, NFL experience) Kellen Clemens (2003-05, 2nd round pick), Dennis Dixon (2006-07, 5th round pick) Jeremiah Masoli (2008-10, darkhorse Heisman candidate), Darron Thomas (2010-11, school passing records), Marcus Mariota (2012-14, possibly NFL’s first overall pick)
Running backs: Ricky Whittle (1992-95, 4th round pick), Saladin McCullough (1996-97, Pac-10’s leading rusher), Reuben Droughns (1998-99, 3rd round pick), Maurice Morris (2000-01, 2nd round pick), Onterrio Smith (2001-02, 4th round pick), Terrence Whitehead (2002-05, 2nd in Pac-10 in rushing yards), Jonathan Stewart (2006-07, 1st round pick), Jeremiah Johnson (2006-2008, NFL experience), LeGarrette Blount (2008-09, NFL career), LaMichael James (2009-11, 2nd round pick), Kenjon Barner (2009-12, 6th round pick), De’Anthony Thomas (2011-13, 4th round pick), Thomas Tyner (2013-current, emerging), Royce Freeman (2014-, Oregon freshman rushing record)
That’s a scary success rate that basically puts a star player at quarterback and running back in the backfield every season for the past 20 years for the Ducks. In college football, that’s enough to be a major contender.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Oregon recruits four-star quarterbacks like it’s a walk in the park.
Oregon’s reach at the quarterback position has never been stronger, thanks, in part, to the legendary career of Heisman Trophy-winning signal-caller Marcus Mariota. After “struggling” to land a quarterback commit early in the process this year, the Ducks ended up going with option D, which turned out to be Travis Waller, a U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection. On his first pass in the contest, the dual-threat quarterback threw a 92-yard touchdown pass before taking a brutal shot.
Less than a decade ago, three swing-and-misses on elite quarterbacks meant the Ducks were likely to strike out, but given the offense’s success the past few years, it appears Oregon has a lot more attempts at the plate each season.
The Ducks already have their class of 2016 quarterback in Minnesota-product Seth Green, with Mariota’s exciting protege, Tua Tagovailoa, dreaming of Oregon green and yellow (and silver and pink and black and white) in his future in the class of 2017. The sophomore out of Hawaii is particularly exciting. Already written about in a Sports Illustrated feature, Tagovailoa holds offers from Ole Miss, Texas Tech, UCLA and USC. He is on pace to become Oregon’s first-ever five-star quarterback recruit — if it offers.
If Oregon’s quarterback recruiting base is considered strong, its ability to collect elite running backs is downright jaw-dropping.
After a spree of junior college/transfer running backs that included Saladin McCullough, Reuben Droughns, Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith, Oregon finally turned to the high school ranks in the early 2000s — and haven’t had to look back (LeGarrette Blount being the exception).
The Ducks have added the West Coast’s top running back, or a five-star equivalent, every year since 2011 with De’Anthony Thomas (2011), Byron Marshall (2012), Thomas Tyner (2013), Royce Freeman (2014) and Taj Griffin this year.
Without question, the catalyst for that heightened profile was Thomas, whose shocking decision to flip from USC to Oregon sparked a national interest in the Ducks’ backfield.
Frankly, Thomas’ reach is difficult to ignore. Talk to almost any running back recruit Oregon is after and his name is quickly mention as a reason for initial interest. Thomas’ career was exciting at the time, but it has come with a cult-like following among high school players.
Griffin, this year’s five-star running back addition, was compared to Thomas by his brother, Ty Griffin, who is in the running to become Oregon’s next quarterback.
The Ducks are up to their ears in 2016 and 2017 running backs with interest in the program, so while they have yet to snare ballcarriers in those classes, it’s not a stretch to assume the four- and five-star talent additions will continue.
Thomas’ impact on recruiting didn’t end at the running back position. The hybrid talent also awoke a sleepy, stunted wide receiver recruiting effort that saw Oregon miss on prospect after prospect for much of the last 10 years.
Oregon has had stars at the quarterback and running back position, but after a spree of Christian McLemore, Tony Hartley, Damon Griffin, Marshaun Tucker and Keenan Howry, the Ducks hit a multiyear drought on talent that they have only recently come out of.
ESPN four-star Missouri product Alex Ofodile (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) is one of the class of 2015’s headliners, having set prep state records during his final season for receptions and yards.
But, again citing Thomas, it seems nearly every speedy, “undersized” pass-catcher dreams of playing for Oregon.
In the class of 2016, the Ducks have already grabbed the commitment of four-star athlete Dillon Mitchell, a Tennessee product with offers from Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Top 100 class of 2016 recruits Steffon McKnight, Devin Duvernay, Sam Bruce, Tyler Vaughns, Chase Lucas have also expressed an interest in visiting Oregon with McKnight and Lucas calling it a “dream” offer.
Of course, the issue is that Oregon can take only so many running backs and receivers. Expect the Ducks to reel in plenty of 2016 and 2017 talent at those two positions. Simply put, their stock has never been higher.
Blocking for all this talent is an under-the-radar offensive line nucleus that has produced plenty of pro athletes under 28-year Oregon coach Steve Greatwood, one of the best assistants in the Pac-12.
This season, the Ducks struggled for a stretch after several key players were lost to injury, including Jake Fisher, but righted the ship to help Mariota win the Heisman Trophy and Freeman set an Oregon record for rushing yards in a season.
Far from pulling in five-star talent every year, Oregon mostly nabs three- and four-star players with the occasional U.S. Army All-American. This year’s group has two four-star recruits in Zach Okun (U.S. Army All-American) and Shane Lemieux.
Given its run at a national championship, expect a slight uptick in talent at the offensive line position in the next recruiting cycle.
On the other side of the ball, Oregon was exposed in a big way in the national championship game, as its non-blitzing, gap-shooting scheme led to a demoralizing performance by Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Time will tell how that affects recruiting, but it’s already clear that the Ducks carry the profile of an offensive school. Now, the biggest knock on Oregon, in terms of negative recruiting, has become that it’s a one-dimensional program.
Rare is the five-star defensive line commit, but Oregon managed to pull one in this year with Hawaii product Canton Kaumatule, who could very well be in the rotation next season.
The Ducks have made significant strides in the state of Hawaii given the play of Mariota and defensive end DeForest Buckner over the past few years. So far, they have turned the focus of that momentum into landing more beefed up lines.
Oregon has a chance at bringing in some interesting talent with this unit next year, including Austrian standout Thomas Schaffer.
If one were to grade the linebacker position after the national championship game, it would be fair to call an “F” generous. Not only did the unit miss several tackles, but the group consistently shot the wrong gap and overpursued to such a degree that a sky-high view of the game made it look like the Ducks were devoid of a second wave of defenders. Instead, Elliott seemed to crash through the first line of defense, only to find himself a defensive back away from the end zone.
That head-scratching effort coincides with a struggle to recruit top linebackers. Four-star Torrodney Prevot has been a recruiting outlier for a unit that has brought in two- and three-star athletes. No position has been more difficult to recruit to Eugene than linebacker, where the Ducks spent most of this recruiting cycle missing on talent.
After losing junior college five-star Davon Durant to Arizona State and wrestling national champion Tevis Bartlett to Washington, Oregon brought in Georgia Bulldogs transfer Paris Bostick, a diverse athlete who could help with depth in multiple spots, but is hardly considered an impact talent.
Watch out for a possible late addition of four-star prospect Josh Smith, a Vanderbilt commit out of Tennessee. Rumblings seem to indicate he could be a late flip to another school, and Oregon just may be the sleeper team folks are talking about.
Oregon had almost as much difficulty with defensive back recruits this season, but the surprise switch of LSU commit Ugo Amadi to Oregon invigorated the group and left the Ducks with a strong anchor for the future.
A position of strength when it comes to producing NFL-level talent, defensive backs coach John Neal hasn’t always gotten the best secondary talent, but he’s been an excellent evaluator, often turning two- and three-star athletes into NFL draft picks.
The 2015 class was nearly disastrous until Amadi flipped, but the next two years show significant promise. Oregon already has landed four-star safety Brady Breeze, the No. 9 player in the country at his position, and 2017 prospect Elijah Molden, a West Linn product and the son of former Oregon star Alex Molden, is a future high school All-American who favors the Ducks. Throw in Rivals top 100 junior Shurod Thompson, who said an offer from Oregon would be a game-changer, and the future looks bright.
It’s almost jarring to see how reflective the national championship game was of Oregon’s recruiting. The Ducks looked solid on offense, while the defense, outside of the secondary, looked dazed and confused.
To turn around the “Oregon is soft” label, the program needs to start finding more success recruiting impact front-seven talent.
Beyond that, however, the Ducks appear to be on the cusp of becoming a perennial Top-15 player in the national recruiting landscape, a feat they have only accomplished a handful of times in the school’s entire history.