More paint is swapped during the recruiting chase than at the Daytona 500, and some coaches are known to take an occasional shortcut through the middle of the track.
Football has its own stadiums full of drunks and rednecks, but no view of the back stretch. There are no restrictor plates in football, where recruiting wars of the past have included incentives like gold Trans Ams and briefcases full of case.
Clock management: less than three weeks remain in the 2014 recruiting game, and Mark Helfrich is out of timeouts. He and the Oregon staff will be in the hurry-up until Signing Day (Kirby Lee, USAToday Sports Images).
Jerry Glanville likes to tell a story about the time he visited a recruit that was wavering in his commitment, back when he was an assistant at Georgia Tech. Coach, I've decided I want to go to Tennessee, the recruit said. Glanville told Andy Johnston of College Football Insider:
“I said, ‘That’s nice. Let me take you for a milkshake and I’ll bring you back for the press conference. He got in my Buick Riviera, and I drove him to Atlanta and enrolled him at Georgia Tech. And they were sitting up there waiting for the press conference. Close the deal!”
For reasons that are entirely his own and to which he is completely entitled, high school senior Bishard "Budda" Baker, a fast, shifty slot receiver/running back/safety/returner from Bellvue, Washington, Tweeted yesterday that he was decommitting from Oregon. He's likely to join former Wolverine teammate Myles Jack at UCLA, or matriculate to nearly UW.
Baker's mother has a severe, limiting illness, Krohn's disease, and that may be a factor in his as-yet unexplained decision. He's a teenager, supremely talented, and the only appropriate thing for grown men to do is wish him well. The 5-9, 170-lb. safety could become a tremendous college football player, but at this point, it won't be with the Ducks.
Just about two weeks ago when De'Anthony Thomas declared for the NFL draft, Baker sent a Twitter message to 247 Sports recruiting analyst Justin Hopkins, asking him to tell UO fans he was ready for the challenge of replacing DAT, eager to bring "a natty" to the trophy case at Hatfield-Dowlin. He'd hosted three trophies at Bellvue, so it wasn't an idle boast: losing him is a big loss, not just in ability, but in leadership. Players like that infect a program with a winning ethic, an expectation a little like Steve Prefontaine's famous quote, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." A team needs a core of players who think that way, players who want to win championships and never stop competing or preparing. After losing Brian Jackson, Taylor Hart and Josh Huff, finding the leaders and pace setters of tomorrow is a high priority.
Baker was not only fast, he was serious and dedicated. That's what makes him a big loss.
Oregon's coaches now have the twin challenge of not only replacing De'Anthony Thomas, but replacing his replacement. The decision reduces the list of verbal commits in the 2014 class to 17, and knocks the Ducks down several spots in the PAC-12 recruiting rankings with less than three weeks to go until Signing Day.
On the field, the Ducks are in good shape for 2014 at both running back and receiver. Even if recruiting ended today they have Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner at running back, with Royce Freeman and Tony James set to join the roster on NSD. Freeman is 6-0, 230, and James runs the 100 in 10.5, an infusion of power and speed. New wide receiver commit Jalen Brown is 6-2 with great hands, leaping ability and body control, and a tall, smooth JC wide receiver named Eric Lauderdale is scheduled to visit on January 24th.
Baker's probably lost to the Webfoots, but the offense still has plenty of weapons. Last season the Oregon coaches closed strong in recruiting after Chip Kelly's January 16th decision to leave for the NFL, and they face a similar challenge this time. Juju Smith remains uncommitted. Mattrell McGraw is visiting Texas A&M this weekend. Defensive tackle Courtney Garnett is at Oklahoma.
In living rooms, dorm rooms and drive-in restaurants, decisions are being made and incentives offered. This part of college football is a little sordid and a little secretive. On the first Wednesday in February 120 coaches will take to a conference table or a podium in front of an array of microphones to announce that they've just signed a terrific class full of outstanding athletes and tremendous young men.
About half of them will actually believe it. And fifteen or so will actually be right. After a week or so to reconnect with their wives and kids, a new round of phone calls, emails and 11th-hour milkshakes will begin. The backstretch of the 2015 recruiting season is already underway, a new race for a limited field of super-charged talent.
To win football games, a coach has to land his share of Budda Bakers, and close strong every season.
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