When news broke that Don Pellum was going to be Oregon’s new defensive coordinator, a number of people asked me how it would affect recruiting. ”It won’t,” I said, “the thing to watch is whether or not John Neal stays put.” I was worried, since I knew that Neal really wanted that defensive coordinator position. How would he react to a fellow position coach getting the promotion instead?
Upon getting word that Neal had been invited to interview for the UAB head coaching position, I was immediately sick to my stomach. Neal was previously the defensive coordinator at Alabama-Birmingham and has many ties to the state. The appeal was obvious, especially considering his new circumstances in Eugene.
My fears were quickly supported as word of his decision to interview got around: Aarion Springs, a key four-star recruit, expressed his confusion and disappointment over twitter, while long-time four-star safety target Mattrell McGraw did the same. Rumors began to spread that Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was rethinking his decision to return to Oregon for his senior year. It’s fair to say that there was a fair amount of panic among the Oregon faithful.
Luckily, John Neal isn’t going anywhere. After considering his options, he removed his name from candidacy for the UAB job and decided to continue coaching defensive backs at Oregon, where he’s become one of the top position coaches in the nation. The significance of Neal’s decision shouldn’t be understated and has both short and long-term implications.
During his time in Eugene, Neal has proven to be an elite evaluator and developer of talent. Look at some of the names he’s recruited and coached over the last ten seasons: Jairus Byrd, John Boyett, Cliff Harris, Talmadge Jackson, TJ Ward, Eddie Pleasant, Walter Thurmond, Patrick Chung, Terrance Mitchell, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Avery Patterson.
The long-term impacts are obvious. Neal sticking around is huge for recruiting. He’s a very efective recruiter, largely because of his resume. The cycle is beautiful: because of all his success developing players, Neal will be able to continue recruiting elite defensive backs to Eugene, which will likely lead to even more success on the field, and so on.
Make no mistake, though, there are immediate benefits as well. It’s been reported by Justin Hopkins of 247 Sports that Springs would not have signed with Oregon had Neal left. The trickle-down impact is hard to gauge, but Springs has been one of the pillars of the class and has helped to personally recruit a number of players to Eugene, including defensive tackle target Trey Lealaimatafao. If Springs had de-committed, Oregon’s chances at landing the former Texas commit would have taken a hit as well.
Finally, for a team that’s hoping to compete for a National Championship next season, Neal’s return is critical. Not only does staff continuity benefit, so does the talent make-up of the defensive backfield. Neal’s decision all but solidifies Ekpre-Olomu’s. Clearly, having a future first-round pick at one of the corner spots next season is huge for the defense.
Pellum’s promotion should also be a positive development for recruiting. A good recruiter himself, Pellum is widely viewed as a father figure by many current and former players, several of whom have come out in support of the coach during this last week. That bodes well for recruiting, as many high school athletes want to have that father figure in place wherever they go.
Pellum is definitely an upgrade over Nick Aliotti in terms of recruiting from the defensive coordinator position. Additionally, the hiring of former Oregon graduate assistant Erik Chinander to fill Pellum’s old role, coaching the linebackers, could have a positive impact as well. Word is that those who make the decisions are very excited about Chinander’s recruiting ability, something he himself has cited as a strength. There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about these recent coaching changes.
These moves will be ultimately judged on their own merits down the road, but there’s no doubt that for now, the Oregon football program is better for them. Had Neal left, the prior sentence may have sounded very different, but he didn’t.
Nothing seems to have changed regarding the 2014 cycle. I don’t expect any de-commitments barring unforeseen circumstances. At the same time, the Ducks are still in good shape to land Trey Lealaimatafao and Mattrell McGraw, in addition to having a real shot at Nick Gates and Poona Ford.
Stay tuned, it should be an exciting few weeks.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline