This week, we take a break from the Oregon Recruiting Manifesto to take a look at some of the emerging talent on the Duck roster.
It didn’t take Jake Rodrigues long to lock down the back-up QB job. Halfway through Saturday’s 2013 Spring Game, it became clear that it’s Rodrigues who the coaches will turn to in the event that Marcus Mariota gets injured this fall, and that’s saying something considering his competition, Jeff Lockie, went 22-of-28 for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Rodrigues showed Duck fans why he was so highly touted coming out of high-school: he’s got great size (6’3″, 220 lbs.), natural running ability and a cannon for an arm. All of the physical tools are there for Rodrigues to thrive in the Ducks’ offense. His skillset and overall talent level, both on full display Saturday, is what sets him apart from Lockie, who, as noted, looked promising as well. This isn’t new information; recruiting services told us that Rodrigues was a special player. Scout, Rivals and ESPN ranked Rodrigues as a 4-star recruit, while Lockie was a unanimous 3-star. The recruiting services saw over two years ago the same thing the Oregon coaches have surely seen this spring: there’s a difference between Rodrigues and Lockie.
Standing out above the rest during Saturday’s spring game was Marcus Mariota. His effortless command of the offense was beautiful to watch. Duck fans better enjoy watching Mariota this year because the 2014 draft might be calling after what’s likely to be a monster season. It’s widely known that Mariota was underrated coming out of high school. Announcers never let us forget that. While this is true, it’s not like everyone just turned a blind eye to the immense potential shown in his high school film (watch that video and tell me you don’t see a star in the making). 247sports ranked Marcus as a 4-star and the #8 dual-threat QB in the nation. Rivals ranked him as the #12 dual-threat QB. While in hindsight he obviously should’ve been ranked higher, it’s not like all of the recruiting services thought this guy was a scrub. Since Mariota didn’t start until his senior year of high-school, there wasn’t a lot of game tape on him; this exposed one of the big flaws of the ranking process, which can often overrate players who physically develop at a young age and underrate players who have big senior seasons, since preliminary rankings come out a full year ahead of signing day, even before the summer camp circuit. Over the past few years, recruiting services have worked to correct this flaw by re-ranking players frequently, but the bias remains, if only because of the logistics involved in ranking such a large number of high school players. Bottom-line: those who act as if Mariota’s potential couldn’t be seen in high-school are either disingenuous or ignorant. Most who watched Marcus’ senior film knew he was an elite QB worthy of, at least, a 4-star ranking.
One of Mariota’s favorite targets on Saturday was Josh Huff, who’s poised for a huge senior season. Rumors are that he’s going to spend more time in the slot, but it remains to be seen where Helfrich and Frost will ultimately line him up. Whether it’s on the inside or the outside, Huff is going to have a big year. As a recruit, Rivals rated him as a 4-star and the #7 all-purpose running back in the country. It’s no wonder that Huff was highly thought of when you watch his combination of quickness, speed and power. He’s had over 10 plays in a Duck uniform that make your jaw drop, and this special ability was evident in high school as well; you can’t coach what makes Josh Huff special.
Another receiver who’s really stepped his game up this spring is Bralon Addison. A unanimous 4-star who was one of the most highly-rated recruits in the 2012 class, Addison contributed as a true freshman last year. Reports out of spring camp suggest that he’s made big strides in his development and looks to be the #2 receiving option behind Josh Huff. When asked about some of the nice plays Addison made in the spring game, Mariota said, “it’s funny because he continues to do this”. In all honesty, he’s been making special plays since he was a sophomore in high school. Watch his senior film and tell me you don’t see a freak athlete. Again, Bralon has some qualities that can’t be coached.
At running back, Byron Marshall looked great during the spring game. Reviews have been mixed throughout spring practices, but on Saturday, he played like a starter looking strong and explosive. When he is decisive and gets up-field, he is very good. He runs with a power that hasn’t been present on the Duck roster since LaGarrette Blount. Marshall is another unanimous four star.
The list could go on and on. Highly rated recruits are beginning to live up to their respective rankings. On defense, guys like Christian French, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Alex Balducci, Tyson Coleman and Reggie Daniels look like future studs. In fact, there are reports from inside the program that Buckner and Daniels in particular are going to be special, special players. All of those guys were Tier-1 (rated four-stars by at least two recruiting services), blue-chip recruits. On offense, the list continues with players like Dwayne Stanford, Pharaoh Brown, Tyler Johnstone, Andre Yruretagoyena and Jake Fisher. All of the young talent listed above points to a bright future comprised of highly rated players living up to their lofty rankings.
So what’s the point of this article? To remind everyone that recruiting rankings are relevant. They are not the end all be all, and they don’t win any games on the field, but in general, they do a great job of predicting success. The analysts who hand out rankings aren’t doing so blindly and they’re good at what they do. Are they perfect? No. Do they underrate some and overrate others? Of course. Hindsight is 20/20. It’s always funny when fans use revisionist history to say, “I can’t believe that guy was a two-star; he’s way better than that four-star guy! Recruiting rankings mean nothing.” That is a common sentiment, and it’s completely ridiculous. Study after study has proven that recruiting rankings matter and act as a great barometer of future success. Here’s a great one. There is a strong positive correlation between recruiting ranking and on-field success, at both the individual and team level.
For every Wade Keliikipi, there are 10 two-stars who never amount to anything. Recruiting rankings only look at talent; that is, potential and on-field production. Often times, when four and five-star players don’t pan out, there were some off-the-field issues in the classroom or with the law. At a place like Oregon, if the coaches have identified and offered a player, there is high probability that off-the-field issues aren’t and won’t be a concern. Therefore, blue-chip recruits who end up in Eugene have an even higher probability of being successful, though (due to the exhaustive background process) there are fewer fish in the sea.
As fans, we shouldn’t shy away from wanting highly rated players. If Oregon chooses not to offer a kid, we should accept that because it means there’s a reason. However, if Oregon offers a player and loses out, it’s ok to be disappointed. There’s no need to pretend like recruiting rankings don’t matter and act like the coaches are demi-gods who have built a powerhouse on the backs of two and three star players, which, despite being completely untrue, is a position held by many (probably to justify signing lower-ranked targets).
There is no doubt: higher ranked players have a higher chance of success at the college level. That doesn’t mean that lower-ranked guys can’t develop into good players, but it’s less likely to happen. Landing as much talent as possible is important, and the coaches realize this. If the young players on the Oregon roster are any indication, being highly rated by recruiting services means having the potential to become a major contributor at the college level. Luckily, Oregon has proven effective at developing the talent it acquires, which is great news for the future of the program. As the 2014 cycle gets underway, keep in mind that while it’s not wise to criticize three-star targets or commitments (especially if the coaches target them early in the process) it’s always a good sign when the program can land blue-chip talent. That talent is a safe bet to become the future backbone of the program.
Next week, we’ll continue with Part 8 of the Oregon Recruiting Manifesto, where I’ll continue to unveil the “Oregon recruiting blueprint” and look specifically at the logistical requirements of past “blueprint” suggestions. How should coaches be spending their time each week? How much work does it take to effectively implement a good recruiting strategy? How does this impact other coaching responsibilities? Check back next Monday for what will hopefully act as an interesting look at some of the real challenges faced by football programs when developing a recruiting strategy.