Oregon’s Success Doesn’t Depend on Recruiting Rankings

Oregon will never win any recruiting championships.  While teams such as Alabama, USC and LSU tend to dominate in the rankings, the Ducks rarely crack the top-15.  Year after year they bring in solid, but unspectacular recruiting classes, yet year after year, Oregon takes those same recruits and turns them into champions.

Why is that?  What is the key that allows teams without the same recruiting power as the USCs and Alabamas to find and develop players that those same schools routinely ignore?  Is it a better method of discerning hidden skills?  A system of identifying strengths unseen by other schools?

A perfect example of this is Marcus Mariota.  Labelled as a three-star recruit by Scout.com and Rivals.com, Mariota was only offered a scholarship by two universities: Oregon and Memphis.  Then-assistant coach Mark Helfrich was so enamored of Mariota that after observing a single practice session, he convinced Chip Kelly to immediately offer him a scholarship.  Mariota had yet to start a game.

LaMichael James was another standout for Oregon who flew somewhat under the radar.  A three-star recruit according to Scout.com and four stars by 247sports.com, James was recruited by more schools than Mariota, but none of those offers were from teams that regularly contend for national championships.  Certainly a lot of schools were deterred by his size, but Oregon saw something in him that other schools did not.  The Ducks made an offer, LaMichael accepted, and he is now considered one of the all-time great running backs in Pac-12 history.

LaMichael James was a diamond in the rough before coming to Oregon

Amazing Moments

LaMichael James was a diamond-in-the-rough before coming to Oregon.

Oregon football history is filled with players such as James and Mariota.  There have been so many who were overlooked, snubbed and ignored by the bigger schools, who then came to Oregon and showed the world what so many had missed.  It’s part of Oregon’s football identity.  But what is the process that allows the Ducks to find so many great players where others did not look?

One of the first things that the school looks for is character.  While bigger and wealthier schools rely much more on physical specimens that garner four-or-five star rankings, Oregon is often looking for more subtle attributes like leadership, humility and accountability.

One only has to look to Mariota for a perfect example of this.  And while there have been players who have experienced moral growth opportunities (Kiko Alonso, LaGarrette Blount and even James), most of them have redeemed themselves and held themselves accountable.  Oregon rarely experiences a player failing so often that he is forced from the team, and when it does happen, it is usually for behavior that would draw a slap on the hand under less-upstanding programs.

Another aspect of recruitment is speed.  Of course, all teams want speedy players, but few teams in the country emphasize it as much as Oregon.  No position on the Ducks is exempt from this.  Big lumbering linemen?  Better look elsewhere.  Stand-in-the-pocket NFL-type quarterbacks?  Not here.  If a player gets a look from Oregon, then it is guaranteed that player is fast.

One of the most important aspects of Oregon’s long-term success is player development.  Oregon will often take a chance on a player knowing that with the tools at their disposal, they can turn young men with a rough edge into polished jewels by the time they leave the school.

An excellent example is Dion Jordan.  Recruited as a tight end, the coaches saw in him the potential for a dominant defensive player, and by his sophomore year, he was playing defensive end.  By the time he left Oregon he was thriving at the position.

Dion Jordan was originally a tight end before being developed as defensive end

Kevin Cline

Dion Jordan was originally a tight end before being developed as defensive end.

A history of steady coaching is another way to develop young, overlooked players.  Young men considering the school don’t have to worry about whether the coach who is recruiting him will be gone in a year or two.  The University does not have a panic button, and this is reflected on how constant the coaching positions have been.

The coaches who come to Oregon generally do not view it as a stepping stone to more lucrative or glamorous jobs.  Oregon is a place where coaches want to be, and to stay.  With some of the best fans in the country, sparkling facilities and one big sugar daddy in Phil Knight, the head coaching position for the Ducks is one of the premiere gigs in the nation.  By having coaches who want to stay, it allows them to further develop the talent they recruit.

Once again, this year’s recruiting class is nowhere near the top ten in the nation.  It’s not even considered one of the top Pac-12 classes.  Yet the only concern about this class is mostly expressed from outsiders who don’t seem to ‘get’ the way Oregon recruits.

Pundits scratch their collective heads and wonder if the team is headed for a negative turn in its fortunes.  In the years to come, those same experts will continue to shake their heads as this little school from a small town in the Northwest keeps on winning with players no one wanted.

It’s the Oregon way.

Top photo Kevin Cline

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Don Gilman

Don Gilman

Don Gilman is a second-year communications major at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. In addition to writing for FishDuck.com, he has been published in the Roseburg News-Review Newspaper, the UCC Mainstream Newspaper, Bucketlist Publications and is the featured author in the June, 2013 edition of eHorror magazine (under a pseudonym.) In 2013 Don received two awards from the Oregon Newspaper Association's annual statewide college competition: Third place for Best Feature Story and second place for Best Spot Photography.

  • Jon

    Please conduct better research. Just look at this years class as an example. Oregon recruits nationally and most all of their signees have a very impressive list of offers from top rated programs from across the country. It is ridiculous and naively inaccurate to say that they win with players no one wanted. Yes, they have signed some under the radar three star players that should have been rated at least four star. However, Oregon just tends to sign smaller classes that can keep their ranking out of the top ten, but still in the top twenty.

  • chris

    As a duck fan I cannot agree with half of this article. We sign studs and every team covets speed. Its football

  • Aaron Tuttle

    Good article. One little sentence was the most important though, the Ducks recruit HIGH CHARACTER HUMAN BEINGS. Yes, they do swing for the fences for guys like the Momba but they regularly bring in good kids into the program. That is why we are so mentally strong and our kids are so open to the program that the coaches put in place.
    Good job and #GODUCKS

    • chris

      except for all the kids that get suspended (Hill, Dargan, Lyerla ext..) i know some of them personally and honestly they are the same as any other football player… cocky as s#@!

      • Aaron Tuttle

        Why wouldn’t they be “cocky.” They play for Oregon. Let’s call a spade a spade though, Oregon has one of the best TEAM environments in the country. It is rare that our athletes are in the news.

        And BTW I know some of the athletes personally as well, they are good kids, just “confident” ones ;)

  • oregon111

    very poor article…
    Oregon does well at every position except DT and LB, where there is a shortage

    the other positions — there are just simply enough players to go around, regardless of the rankings

    Oregon does a poor job of signing defensive tackles – and that needs to improve – or Oregon will go back to being mediocre…

    other teams are catching up

  • dpduck

    I can’t read “who have experienced moral growth opportunities” without cracking a smile. Looks like this is an article aimed at disgruntled fans who believe the Ducks ought to be signing a top recruiting class if Oregon is going to be any good. We’ve seen this isn’t the case. And really, the idea that good coaching and a careful selection process helps is certainly true. But I believe the recruiting rankings are something Oregon would recognize as “beyond their control” and so I imagine they don’t care. They will try to get the kids who look and feel solid and play great football. They will lose out on a few athletes, and they will get lucky with others. Part of the process.

  • DonealDuck

    Oregon Recruiting

    Positive: It is obviously not a ‘dud’ class when one young man coming to Oregon was MVP of his all star game and another scored three touchdowns in his and should have been; and when every need, albeit maybe one, was filled. Performance on the field is still more important than ‘stars’, yes?… ;)

    Negative: Anyone other than a green and yellow glassed Duck apologist would have to admit that it can only be seen as a failure by Oregon coaches to wait so late in the recruiting cycle to obtain commitments from defensive tackles when they knew the situation a year ago at this time. It is impossible to keep the thought from entering one’s mind; “What the ____ were they thinking?!?”

  • Patrick Pine

    One other reason for Oregon’s stability with coaches. The cost of living in Eugene is dramatically less than in many of the more famed D1 schools and the quality of life is exceptional. For many of the assistants, going to LA at twice the pay as at UO would not actually end up boosting net pay after considering the cost of living. So a coach can have a nice lifestyle while still being involved in top level competition.

  • Krambo

    Under Aliotti, the defensive lineman had one responsibility: hold your ground, fill the gap, and eat up as many blockers as possible in order to allow the LB’s to make the play. Not very conducive to signing those top-flight linemen who look NFL-ready right after graduation. You’re going to sign who Oregon has continually signed the last few decades: big bodies used as filler. We’ve had a few greats come through, but the DL has been largely unimpressive for as long as I can remember.

    Now, I don’t know if top linemen didn’t come because of Aliotti’s play-style or Aliotti’s play-style was necessary because top linemen wouldn’t come…but I’m confident it’s one of those.

    Losing Azzinaro last year was a huge blow, but I’m curious to see how Pellum handles the D-Line issue. The Ducks offense can plug nearly any decent player into a position and be effective…I want to see the coaching staff spend a few classes with defense as their focus. A great defense will put you in a better position to win a mythical national championship than a great offense. We’ve seen it time and time again.

  • Chris Charbonnier

    Great article, although I completely disagree with your second-to-last sentence. The past three seasons, Oregon has actually been the 2nd most talented team in the PAC-12 (per recruiting rankings) trailing only USC. Stanford and UCLA are right there, but once again, going into 2014, Oregon will be #2. This team is loaded with talent and has been for longer than many recognize.

    No, we can’t compete with the blue-bloods for top-10 classes, but we’re still doing pretty well. And that’s important, because you need talent to win at the highest levels.

    Also, congrats on being linked by ESPN.


    This class has 17 Team Captains, as in Leaders of there perspective Teams, and this was something sorely missing from the Ducks as a whole on both sides of the Ball, and thats why players need to take some from this class and teach them the Oregon way and that’s Winning The Day like they did with Chip, and need to get that Chip back on their shoulders that NO ONE WILL BEAT US TODAY. Hopefully Coach Helfrich gets that back because if he doesn’t his tenure as Oregons Head Man might not be for long.

  • rob2234

    Great article. Meanwhile, my favorite aspect might be the fact that FishDuck completely avoided mentioning the lame “recruiting site” that listed Mariota as a 2 star.

  • Anthony Lang

    Love it! Oregon has made it to the natty and is nowhere close to being the best at recruiting on the other hand if you wanna become a star come to oregon like it says your a diamond in the rough until the Oregon coaches give you a polish:)

  • Cpt.Obvious Journalism editor

    “An excellent example is Dion Jordan. Recruited as a tight end, the coaches saw in him the potential for a dominant defensive player, and by his sophomore year, he was playing defensive end. By the time he left Oregon he was *thriving at the position*.”

    By the time he left Oregon he was *DRAFTED NUMBER 3 OVERALL IN THE NFL DRAFT*.