Stars brighten Duck football recruiting

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It’s getting to be the best gazing time for college football recruiting.

The stars are aligning.

Some glimmer brightly. Some are dimming a bit.

Will the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school lineman Arik Armstead of Elk Grove, Calif., end up at Cal, Notre Dame or Oregon? What about wide receiver Thomas Johnson of Dallas, Texas? Is he a Duck lean or a Texas A&M guy? Then there’s Sacramento safety Shaquille Thompson. Is he heading north to Oregon or Washington? Or will he ultimately stick with Cal?

Arik Armstead, one of Oregon's big targets this recruiting season

Can Oregon (which is currently ranked anywhere from 11th to 25th, depending on the service or publication) crack the top 10 with a late rush? Or does that belong to another Pac-12 program, say UCLA or Stanford?

If you’re a Duck fan, you’re likely balancing both angst and hope about now.

And we still have 10 days until National Letter of Intent Signing Day (Feb. 1).

I never used to put too much credence in the recruiting rankings and the system that evaluates prep players from all around the country based on a 1-to-5 star system. That changed when what the recruiting services were telling me matched up with what my eyeballs were telling me and with what the rest of the country was seeing on the field: That the Duck players in recent years have been significantly faster and more athletic than their predecessors from the early 2000s and the 1990s.

The rankings and “stars” are not fool proof, of course. Consider that Lache Seastrunk, who is now at Baylor after failing to crack the three-deep at Oregon, earned five stars as a high school senior in 2009, while Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd showed up in Eugene in 2005 with just two stars to his name.

Former Duck Jairus Byrd, shown here against Oregon State, had nine interceptions as a rookie with the Buffalo Bills in 2009.

With good coaching and the benefit of intangibles, a school also can cobble together the occasional good season without stockpiling a ton of talent.

But the recruiting services do a good job at identifying top high school players, particularly those deemed 4-star and 5-star quality. And over time, a program needs consistently good classes in order to maintain excellence.

So in the big picture at least, stars and rankings do matter.

Oregon is a good example. I took a look at the database, which dates to 2002, and found the program’s rise to national prominence correlates with the better recruiting rankings the Ducks have enjoyed lately (see chart below).

RECRUITING RANKINGS FOR OREGON SINCE 2002 ranking    Ave. stars per player
2012*:             No. 11                             3.47
2011:               No. 10                             3.52
2010:               No. 13                             3.35
2009:               No. 29                            2.92
2008:               No. 16                             3.35
2007:               No. 22                             3.14
2006:               No. 32                             2.70
2005:               No. 30                             2.74
2004:               No. 21                             2.74
2003:               No. 43                             2.54
2002:               No. 57                             2.14
* Verbals only. Through Saturday, Jan. 21

The Duck players who played in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 against Wisconsin largely came from the 2007-10 recruiting classes. A handful of true freshmen from the 2011 class — most notably one of the game’s standouts, De’Anthony Thomas — also made it onto the field. Based on the system, the 11 offensive starters for Oregon had an average star rating of 3.27, while the 11 defensive starters had an average of 3.09 stars.

De'Anthony Thomas arrived as a 5-star recruit from Los Angeles and didn't disappoint as a true freshman this past season.

Interestingly, the Rose Bowl’s offensive MVP, Duck wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei, was just a 2-star recruit back in 2009. The game’s defensive MVP, linebacker Kiko Alonso, came to Oregon in 2008 with three stars on his back and was considered just the 38th-best middle linebacker prospect in the country. Anyone who witnessed Alonso’s spectacular interception of Russell Wilson in the third quarter or his penchant for creating havoc in the Badger backfield would assume otherwise.

Which brings me back to an earlier point: Recruiting is extremely important but it is the not the end-all. First, you can have individual cases where highly rated high-schoolers (the 4- and 5-star recruits) fail to produce in college, and for any number of reasons — including a lack of work ethic or a major injury. Conversely, you can have players who come in as a 2-star recruit, grow into their bodies and surprise.

Toughness and heart can go a long ways.

So does good coaching.

The same for top-notch facilities — like those found at the UO — which allow players to train year-round, heal from injuries quicker and get ahead in academics.

Using the database again, I was struck by how many Oregon players who eventually became starters or team stars came in under the radar. Some players on arrival in Eugene were sure bets to succeed — Haloti Ngata in 2002 and Jonathan Stewart in 2005 and De’Anthony Thomas in 2011 all arrived as 5-star recruits and the best at their position in the nation. But many others didn’t (see the two lists below).

Brandon Bair, DT, 2 stars
Marcus Maxwell, WR, 2 stars
Dante Rosario, LB, 2 stars

Ra’Shon Harris, DT, 2 stars
Geoff Schwartz, OL, 3 stars
Patrick Chung, CB, 2 stars
Max Unger, OL, 2 stars

Jairus Byrd, CB, 2 stars
Walter Thurmond, CB, 2 stars
Jeremiah Johnson, RB, 3 stars
Nick Reed, DE, 3 stars

Spencer Paysinger, WR, 2 stars
Jordan Holmes, OL, 2 stars
C.E. Kaiser, OL, 2 stars

Terrell Turner, SLB, 2 stars
Mark Asper, OT, 2 stars
David Paulson, TE, 3 stars
Casey Matthews, SLB, 3 stars
Eddie Pleasant, S, 3 stars
Jeff Maehl, CB, 3 stars

LaMichael James, RB, 3 stars
Josh Kaddu, SLB, 3 stars
Kenjon Barner, CB, 3 stars
Kiko Alonso, MLB, 3 stars

Wade Keliikipi, DT, 2 stars
Lavasier Tuinei, WR, 2 stars
Taylor Hart, DE, 3 stars


Year   Round    Player    Stars in high school
2011     4      Casey Matthews              3 stars
2010     2      T.J. Ward                        Walk-on
2010     3      Ed Dickson                      4 stars
2010     4      Walter Thurmond III     2 stars
2009     2      Patrick Chung                 2 stars
2009     2      Jairus Byrd                      2 stars
2009     2      Max Unger                      2 stars
2009     5      Fenuki Tupou                 4 stars
2009     6      Ra’Shon Harris              2 stars
2009     7      Nick Reed                        3 stars
2008     1      Jonathan Stewart           5 stars
2008     5      Dennis Dixon                 4 stars
2008     7      Geoff Schwartz               3 stars
2007     5      Dante Rosario                 2 stars
2007     6      Matt Toeaina                  No stars
2007     6      Jordan Kent                   Walk-on

Over the past few years, those “overachieving” Ducks — and I use that term loosely — have decreased, largely because Oregon rarely lands a 2-star guy anymore.

A year ago, 11 of the 23 players the Ducks landed were 4-star guys. Just one was a 2-star. So far this cycle, 9 of the 19 verbal commits are 4-star and none are 2-star. Compare that to 2004, when just 4 of the 29 recruits were 4-star and a whopping 13 were 2-star.

So where does this leave the Duck program heading to the latest Signing Day?

You should expect Oregon to finish in the top 15 again — for the fourth year in a row.

You should have faith in the coaching staff, not only to recruit those who show the most athleticism and promise but to coach them up.

And you should look forward to seeing more stars eventually leave Eugene shining as bright as the planet Venus.

Even the ones that arrive a bit distant.


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