With 22 verbal commitments across ten states, it’s apparent that the new Oregon football coaching staff could sell Hummers during a gas shortage. Four months remain before the early signing period, yet there are only about a half-dozen slots to fill. And make no mistake, those who have committed are players with very impressive credentials. This is early quantity of high quality like nothing Duck fans have seen before. How and why is this happening? A conversation with David Kelly, Director of Recruiting Operations, unearthed the formula.
“First and foremost, Willie Taggart gets it. Recruiting is priority one. The staff was put together with this is mind. All ten coaches are effective, motivated recruiters and talent evaluators. There are no weak links. This is rare in college football.” (From David Kelly)
Without disparaging the previous regime, not all Oregon coaches embraced the rigors of recruiting like this bunch does. Taggart & Company are on a mission and the bar has been set high. No excuses. No stragglers.
Relatedly, one of this staff’s strengths is its the wide range of established relationships with high school coaches throughout the nation. In the past, Oregon had a modicum of success pulling players from Texas (e.g., LaMichael James, Bralon Addison) and the Southeast (e.g., Charles Nelson), but Taggart’s staff was raised in traditional football hotbeds. As a result, they have deeper connections to those talent-laden areas.
The notion that Eugene is a difficult place from which to recruit is moot, since the new staff naturally gravitates to familiar turf. Lo and behold, plenty of high-humidity prospects are eager to come to Oregon. As Northwest relationships with coaches are cemented over time, the the geographic distribution may skew westward, but Oregon will maintain a national footprint.
That the new staff has a more youthful look is hardly a revelation. For years, the Ducks promoted staff longevity and stability. This served the program well for a decade, especially when complemented by new facilities, uniform combinations, and innovative offensive schemes. But the proliferation of social media as a recruiting vehicle, indeed the primary means of communication, makes Twitter proficiency and comfort absolutely essential. Oregon football has always been on the cutting edge of technology, yet its reliance on social media was unremarkable. Not blatantly deficient, but nothing special.
Kelly, on the other hand, is on Twitter “three or four hours per day.” He also has his own assistants tracking a litany of posts and creating edits. Meanwhile, the football Coaches and Coordinators are churning out messages at a rate that makes Trump look like a novice. If this staff weren’t working 16+ hours a day, then you might mistake them for teenagers. Well, maybe not Jim Leavitt.
All coaches at all schools and all of their verbally committed prospects extol the “family atmosphere” at the University of Your Choice. It’s kumbaya from coast to coast, especially during official visits. Meanwhile, recruiting by most programs is fragmented, in the sense that players are recruited chiefly by their position coach and/or the coach assigned to their geographic area. At Oregon the philosophy is different: all verbally committed athletes and all major targets are recruited by the entire staff.
The goal is that the prospect and his parents truly interact and eventually connect with everyone. “And I mean all ten coaches,” Kelly explains. This is only possible with a staff that covets the recruiting process, otherwise it would create dissension among coaches with varying role expectations. Not only does this “family” approach help maintain the athlete’s enthusiasm, but it helps prevent defections if a position coach leaves the program.
Family orientation is underscored in other ways. For example, Taggart and Kelly discourage official visits prior to December, so that coaches have more time to spend with prospects and their parents when visiting. Plus, Taggart wants to secure their final visit, something that might be impossible during the regular season. Conventional wisdom has been to expose official visitors to the Autzen experience, from the walk through the tunnel to the frenzied crowd to the newest Nike creation. And, indeed, unofficial visits during the season are absolutely encouraged.
But, fostering relationships is perceived as more influential than exposure to the game-day experience, and when coaches have to coach, they can’t be relating to visitors. Moreover, as great as it is in Eugene on game days, there is also plenty of pageantry in Athens, College Station, Tallahassee and Columbus. Plus, virtually every team is now making a fashion statement. Just as the high-tempo, spread offense has become ubiquitous, so too have most of the bells and whistles that made the Oregon brand unique just several short seasons ago.
What’s left then? Relationship building. That’s what Taggert is banking on.
Aside from attracting a handful of major (uncommitted) targets, the present objective is to keep all 22 verbal commits on board. After all, no sale is complete until the check clears. From now until signing day (in December or February) these fledgling Ducks will be hearing from the coaches and each other even more than they did before deciding, because they are now an integral part of Oregon football (note the use of present tense, it’s not an accident). Kelly expects verbals to morph into signed LOIs during the early (December) signing period.
Certainly there are contingencies in place to counter wavering or decommitments, but for now, the hope is that the month of January can be devoted chiefly to the Classes of 2019 and, to a lesser extent, 2020. Meanwhile, Kelly seems unfazed about potential defections for three reason: “First, we only want kids who really want us. Second, attracting 25+ excellent players to Oregon is going to happen regardless. Third, the 2018s are already a tight group.”
A locked-down 2018 recruiting class could be Oregon’s all-time best before New Year’s Day arrives.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline