As I reflect on the weekend of Oregon’s Spring Game at the end of April, I wonder if there has ever before been such a successful three-day stint of verbal commitments in the history of Ducks football. Possibly in the month of February with Signing Day surprises, but in April? How did this all come about with a completely revamped coaching staff?
Let me introduce a man whom I consider a friend, despite never meeting him face to face: coach David Kelly. If you were to check his bio on GoDucks.com, you would notice that it says nothing. Oddly, this may fit his character. As Assistant Athletic Director of Football Recruiting Operations, he plays a role in recruiting that is very much below the casual fan’s radar. He prefers it this way. He wants zero recognition.
We know that Kelly came over with coach Willie Taggart from USF. As I see it, Kelly is very much Taggart’s ”right-hand man.” He comes to Eugene with plenty of coaching and recruiting experience, and with nationwide contacts and relationships at all levels of football. According to his bio on the Gousfbulls.com site, he has coached and recruited athletes from the SEC, ACC, Pac-10 (before it became the Pac-12) and C-USA conferences. He also has experience at the professional level in the NFL, CFL and the proposed MLFB. He has a great grasp on what it takes for college athletes to get to the next level.
When I congratulated Kelly after the spring game about the amazing weekend of Oregon pledges, he simply said, “The hard part begins now; we must keep them.” It goes back to what he told me before about this staff’s recruiting approach: that it’s important to build strong relationships with individuals and be honest. This staff does not push for commitments early in the recruiting cycle because if they are successful, their rivals will know whom to go after hardest.
This nugget of recruiting insight opened my eyes to the kind of coaches Oregon has. Relationships are built. Trust is earned. Parents warm up to the idea that their kid will be playing in Eugene. If the parents feel good and the prospect feels good, then recruiting becomes easier. So, when I commented to Kelly about the staff being able to flip FSU commit Isaiah Bolden, he told me that they had “been planting seeds and it’s now coming to fruition.”
I need not remind anyone of the fact that Oregon snatched up co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Mario Cristobal from Alabama, the most successful FBS program over the last several years. His championship experience is unsurpassed, and his vision for offensive linemen is legendary.
I can’t tell you how excited I was when Taggart snagged stud defensive line coach Joe Salave’a away from WSU. His name is highly respected throughout the Polynesian community and he has instant credibility with the recruits. He and his culture help to bring a family feel to the team.
The search for a defensive coordinator was probably extensive, but it’s hard to improve on Jim Leavitt. Leavitt brought Colorado out of the abyss of the conference’s defensive basement with much less talent than Oregon currently has. Having him in charge will improve the discipline on a defense that at times last year showed a lack of organization.
The head man is not a new name to many, but he still has more potential than experience. Taggart is only the second head coach to be at his third D1 coaching stop — without being fired — by the age of 40. The only other coach to do that is Urban Meyer, and we all know the success Meyer has had over the years since. If Meyer is an indicator of Taggart’s potential, I’ll take it.
The remaining staff, including graduate assistants, have the “juice” that Taggart is looking for from everyone involved in the football program. I enjoy seeing Tweets on Twitter.com from the position coaches with maps of where they are in the country. Not only are they active on the recruiting trail but they are also taking the trouble to keep the athletes and fans informed.
I’m sure coach Donte Pimpleton visited North Carolina to get vibes on other running back studs, but I expect it was mostly to check up on the Ducks’ newest RB commit Jamal Elliott in Durham. Elliott has Duke in his back yard, and the North Carolina Tar Heels are less than 15 miles away. You can bet there will be serious local efforts to flip Elliott from Oregon.
Two other Oregon 4-star pledges live in California. Keeping Steve Stephens and Javon Holland committed will be a major challenge for coach Keith Heyward. Heyward has done an excellent job at building relationships in California and filling the safety spots early, displaying his hard work.
Cristobal has managed, in his short time in Eugene, to pick up Oregon’s top offensive lineman. Local 4-star Dawson Jaramillo seems really comfortable with his future position coach already. Jaramillo dreamed of being a Duck as a youth, so his commitment may be the most solid at this point. Also, it helps that Jaramillo is close by so Cristobal can easily keep tabs on him.
A commitment from 4-star linebacker Adrian Jackson was almost as shocking to me as those of Stephens, Bolden and Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano. Jackson lives in Colorado, and Leavitt was his primary recruiter for the Buffaloes. The relationship that Leavitt built with Jackson while he was at Colorado helped him to get Jackson to come to Eugene.
Oregon’s three remaining commitments are 3-stars. Each plays a position of necessity, especially tight end Spencer Webb – the Ducks need to sign at least two TE’s in this recruiting class. The next position of need is defensive tackle, where JUCO transfer Mohamed Diallo has pledged. Finally the RB position will need to be bolstered after Royce Freeman and Kani Benoit depart at the end of this upcoming season. Three-star running back Travis Dye, the first 2018 commit, has offered to help here.
The 2018 class is definitely shaping up in a hurry. I heard rumblings before the spring game about how poorly the staff was recruiting despite their reputation of recruiting success. Dye was the sole commit for quite some time, and Oregon fans, including me, get a little antsy when our favorite prep stars aren’t committing to the Ducks. However, my worries were put to rest after my communications with Kelly. This class may end up being a top-15 class on signing day. But it’s the relationships being built for the future that should really pay off in the 2019 and 2020 classes. Watch for those two classes to break the top 10 and possibly be the best recruiting classes ever in the history of Oregon football.
With coach Kelly as the recruiting hub in Eugene, following the lines of communication of the traveling coaches in all directions, I told him that I see him as the center piece of a wheel with spokes. He keeps track of the offers and at times coaches ask him to handle the actual extending of offers to the student athletes. I may understand only a small part of how critical it is to have Kelly on board, but whatever my understanding, I’m glad to have him as a Duck.
If the current staff can stay intact and the recruiting “juice” transfers into success on the field with wins, then Oregon will regain the right to be in championship conversations in a year or two. I’m confident that this staff will maintain relationships and stay aggressive on the recruiting trail to make things well again for Ducks fans.
Oregon Football Recruiting Analyst
Follow me on Twitter @buzzbrother2
Top photo by John Sperry
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