When the Oregon Ducks stifled the Top 20 offense of the Arizona Wildcats in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game, America saw a side of the Oregon defense that hasn’t been there all year. This was the focused, well-coached defense that played 59 minutes and 55 seconds (The last five seconds is when Arizona’s third-string quarterback ran into the end zone as time expired.) This defense also helped place the impression that the team belongs in the inaugural College Football Playoff. And that impression has translated to recruiting.
The performance may be that home run the Oregon recruiting staff has needed to gain momentum on top defensive prospects. It was timely to have this performance and then have the top defensive player come to Eugene for his official visit the very next day. Josh Sweat was a long shot for Oregon to claim and probably had his mind made up to go to Florida State, but this may have given him some serious thought of choosing Oregon.
Some might say that this type of defense is frequently seen in the SEC. For the SEC, it isn’t new because the diligent recruiting in that part of the country draws in so many high-caliber defensive players. Alabama has been one of the recipients of this skill for many years now, winning the recruiting battle each year four years straight.
But Oregon just made people notice, too. Blue chip defensive players that have had the Ducks in their top five choices, or have orally committed to schools but have second thoughts, should get on this roster before it’s too late. Rex Manu, defensive tackle from Hawaii, has been considered to be a bright student, and his commitment to Oregon after what he saw proves his brilliance.
For those who may be on the fence with Oregon, there is something to say. Oregon is new to football elitism. It is not a storied football program with championships and Heisman trophy winners lining the halls on campus. This is what the storied programs fear — a new team displacing them in the top of the ranks. The East Coast just wants to talk about championships in the past. Well, incoming players will have no effect on the past. They will influence the future, and Oregon has a future. The Ducks are not tanking after this season. The foundation is already there and immovable, like a 10-foot-thick slab of concrete for a building.
The Oregon staff is not changing any time soon, with Coach Mark Helfrich only in his second year as head coach. Don Pellum, in his first year at defensive coordinator, has been a part of the program 21 years prior to this season. These leaders are committed to excellence and improvement.
Oregon now has 17 verbal commitments that seem solid. The offense is mostly complete and could take up to two more athletes with the likes of offensive linemen Semisi Uluave (another Hawaiian) and Kirk Merritt from Louisiana, who must be disappointed in his local team’s knack to underachieve.
With the offense taken care of, I have been focusing on ways the defensive side can end the recruiting cycle strong. There is some great talent on defense that has been considering Oregon and could contribute in the future.
In the defensive backfield, one potential recruit looking at Oregon seriously is safety Marvell Tell. The Ducks have safeties, but work remains to be done in recruiting cornerbacks. Coach Neal has proven the ability to put a great backfield together, and the cornerbacks I like most seem unlikely to quack, but may have taken notice recently. These include Iman Marshall from California and Kendall Sheffield from Texas. The recent surge of Octavius Spencer might be a hint that he would also work in nicely.
The linebackers have no commitments yet, although Tevis Bartlett from Wyoming may be the surest bet. A talented prospect would be John Houston from California, but another good choice might be Davon Durant, a JUCO transfer who has committed to Arizona State. If the Ducks can flip Durant, this could be a huge boost to this unit. Even though Malik Jefferson is a long shot, he would be amazing as a part of the front seven in future seasons.
Defensive Line. Some of the most talented prospects that Oregon has targeted play on the D-line. Rex Manu, Gus Cumberlander and Canton Kaumatule are all great additions to this class; however, depth is a benefit of success at high levels of competition. The uncommitted players holding offers from Oregon include Rasheem Green and Neville Gallimore, listed at tackle. The ends include Byron Cowart, Terry Beckner Jr. and Benning Potoae.
Flipping a couple of defensive ends might also be an option. BYU commit Mika Tafua could be beneficial. UCLA commit Keisean Lucier-South, or the newly committed Sweat from Florida State would make my day if they reconsidered Oregon. If the Ducks beat the Seminoles, there may be a better chance to flip Sweat.
With less than two months left in this recruiting cycle, Oregon has most of its spots filled and will have to wait for a few last-minute signees to complete its class. Oregon typically has one or two February surprises, and we can only speculate who he/they may be. It will be exciting to see how the playoff pans out. And Oregon fans can certainly hope that the Ducks take away two more victories … making commits from elite defensive athletes that much easier.
Top photo by Gary Breedlove