Ducks Face Unique Recruiting Challenge

As Duck fans, we have become spoiled. After decades of deprivation, during which 6-5 was almost a historic year, we have had a couple of decades of unprecedented success that now make a 7-5 or 6-6 season an unthinkable disaster. Our Ducks don’t rebuild, they reload. Every year we expect to and have seen our Ducks be national title contenders.

Even the years that finish as “disappointments,” like the 2013 campaign, in which we were ranked in the top two of the AP poll and Coaches Poll through week 11 and finished ranked “low,” all the way down at No. 9, the Ducks had, by most standards, a remarkable year. It is incredible how high the Oregon football program has set the bar for itself. Outside of the “off” year in 2013, the Ducks have finished in the top four each of the last five years, consistency that has only been outmatched over that span by Alabama.

This feat is especially impressive in the context of the recent completion of National Signing Day. Relative to Oregon’s on-the-field success, Oregon’s success on the recruiting trail has lagged. While Oregon has not finished outside the top 11 in either the final AP or Coaches poll in the last seven years, it has only had one top 10 recruiting class, 2011, according to Rivals. ESPN and Scout.com had even that Oregon recruiting class pegged as No. 14 and No. 13, respectively.

Royce Freeman runs the ball against UCLA

David Pyles

Royce Freeman runs the ball against UCLA

While Oregon’s recruiting has been reasonably good, with the Ducks’ average class ranking about 20th across Rivals, Scout and ESPN since 2009, it is well below the rankings the school has earned for on-the-field performance. Each year since 2009 nearly one third of all 65 Power Five schools have landed recruiting classes that were  ranked ahead of Oregon, yet only one program, Alabama, has performed better on the field over that span. And the Tide has the highest average ranked recruiting class over that time of anyone in the country.

Recruiting rankings are by no means perfect predictors of talent, and as fans we are the worst offenders of over-hyping recruits based on recruiting rankings. A couple of statisticians, however, have done interesting analysis on the correlation between recruiting rankings and on-the-field performance, and the correlation, as expected, is quite high.

Generally speaking, those programs that bring in the highest ranked recruits perform the best on the field. Oregon is somewhat of an outlier, since it is consistently a top 5 program in on-the-field success but ranks outside the top 15 on the recruiting trail. Basically, despite being a premiere program on the field, Oregon is second-tier when it comes to recruiting.

Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich

Gary Breedlove

Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich

One explanation could be that Oregon mostly goes after diamond-in-the-rough recruits that other programs overlook, that Oregon doesn’t target the four- or five-star recruits that scouts and other programs prize. This is, however, not necessarily the case.

Oregon does do an outstanding job of recognizing undervalued talent — Marcus Mariota was not a highly touted recruit and only had offers from Memphis and Oregon – but Oregon mostly targets highly ranked recruits.  Oregon, however, is unable to land them nearly as consistently as the other top programs do (e.g., Durant, Doherty, Woods, Vanderdoes, Boyd, Murray, Manziel, Smith). Not for lack of trying, Oregon coaches just haven’t been able to close higher rated recruits as frequently as other top programs.

However, Oregon’s inability to consistently land top 10 recruiting classes to match its consistency in the top 10 final rankings isn’t due to a poor job of recruiting by Oregon coaches. Given Oregon’s structural challenges when it comes to recruiting, Oregon coaches do an outstanding job.

Oregon, unlike almost every other college football powerhouse, is neither in nor near the recruiting hot-beds that produce the vast majority of the four and five-star talents. All the national title winners since 2000 — Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Texas, USC, Miami and Oklahoma — are in the heart of, or relatively close to, the centers of the major college football recruiting hubs. Texas, Florida, California, the other Gulf States and Michigan/Ohio produce the majority of blue chip recruits.

There are other very strong football programs outside these major recruiting hot spots (e.g. Nebraska, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Boise State, Kansas State, etc.), however, none has been nearly as successful over the past five years as Oregon. Additionally, outside of Boise State, each is considerably closer to the major recruiting hotbeds.

Oregon coaches at the 2014 Spring Game

Kevin Cline

Oregon coaches at the 2014 Spring Game

While the state of Oregon is adjacent to California, Eugene is a 12+ hour drive from the heart of the state’s high school football talent, which resides in Southern California.  Eugene is obviously a whole lot further than that from the other recruiting hot beds in Texas, Ohio/Michigan and the Gulf states.  Other top programs not directly in the middle of the main sources of college football talent are significantly closer. For example, Oklahoma is only a three hour drive from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Notre Dame is only a few hours from Ohio, Chicago and most of the population centers in Michigan.

Distance matters when recruiting. Athletes want to play in front of their families, friends and hometown fans. Additionally, kids become attached to their hometown teams. (I still root hard for the Ducks and Blazers though I haven’t lived in Oregon for almost ten years.) Moreover, they often want to be a part of bringing championships to the areas they grew up in, and to the teams they cheered for as kids (e.g., LeBron James decision to return to Cleveland).

It is much easier to get a kid to stay home and play for the local team than to get him to travel across the country to attend school and play football. One needs to look no further than where the players from the four teams in the inaugural college football playoff come from to see how Oregon must rely on pulling in kids from all over the country, while other powerhouses can mostly focus on their states or regions.

Marcus Mariota accepts the 2014 Heisman Trophy

From Video

Marcus Mariota accepts the 2014 Heisman Trophy

The Nike connection, and the resulting world class facilities and awesome uniforms, have helped to offset some of the challenges with the distance, but uniforms and buildings only get you so far. The job the coaches do — selling kids on the culture of Oregon football, the coaching they’ll receive, the opportunities they’ll have, etc. — is what is enabling Oregon to bring in the caliber of recruits that challenge for top 15 recruiting classes despite the distance.

Oregon’s reputation for excellent uniforms and facilities helps get the Ducks on the map with recruits, but you are selling these kids short if you think those things are the main reasons they are choosing Oregon. Recruits choose Oregon to join a winning program, be a part of unique brotherhood with a great culture, receive great coaching, play in an exciting style of offense or defense that fits their skill sets, and take advantage of a host of other, more substantial reasons than uniforms and buildings.

The outstanding players I’ve seen over the years at Oregon, especially on this past year’s team, have much more depth to their character than that. And Oregon’s coaches have done a phenomenal job of bringing those kids in despite the distance.

Top photo by Cliff Grassmick

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