Getting Back to Normal in Oregon’s Football Recruiting

Jason Fowler Recruiting

Remember when DAT had been committed to USC for so long, then signing day came? Boom! Can Oregon do it again?

Remember when DAT had been committed to USC for so long, then signing day came? Boom! Can Oregon do it again?

Oregon Ducks now have 15 committed players for the 2017 class. They are ranked back in the top 25 and starting to feel normal again. Most of the commitments are outspoken regarding how much they really want to be a part of the Oregon program. This is great news; unfortunately this year has a looming “what if?” that can change a lot of the recruiting momentum.

That “what if,” of course, is whether coach Mark Helfrich will be in that same position come February. At this point, I might even be bold enough to wonder about the defensive coordinator, Brady Hoke, maintaining his job.

Helfrich is one heck of a nice guy and inherited a situation when the football team had sanctions against it from the NCAA. This is a challenge for any coach who is established, but for a brand new head coach, it might be more than one can handle. Recruiting immediately took a hit with the sanctions and the unknown effects they make on a program. Add a green head coach, to boot, which caused even more question marks about who would risk signing with Oregon.

Johnny Johnson III has seen his stock rise at the end of his senior season.

Johnny Johnson III has seen his stock rise at the end of his senior season.

With all that immediate negative pressure, Helfrich demonstrated his genius by getting Oregon to the Rose Bowl and playing for another national title just a couple years after taking over. The sanctions hurt recruiting but Helfrich obviously has done well evaluating talent based on the youth that is excelling on the field this year.

Hoke was suppose to come in this year and right the ship on defense. He implemented a new scheme, which seemed very deliberate and planned to improve a declining defense. His first nine games were nothing remotely defined as improvement, but the most recent defensive stand against a strong Utah team was impressive.

In comparison to another applicant that Oregon had a choice of last year, Justin Wilcox has been nothing but a miracle for Wisconsin. The Badgers proved their defensive prowess from Game 1 against the LSU Tigers and arguably the best running back in the nation in Leonard Fournette. Also, Wisconsin took the high-powered offense of Ohio State to overtime. Wilcox accomplished this within the same time frame as Hoke has had to make the Oregon D relevant. Of course, it wasn’t with the same players, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison.

With the question marks staring at Helfrich and Hoke, the future of Oregon football is uncertain to those who are not in the know. Rival coaches know this. Media outlets know this. It is blown out of proportion by many to negatively recruit against the Ducks. A black mark has been set. The perceived instability of the coaches is out of the ordinary at Oregon, and the head coach hasn’t been fired for decades. Stability is necessary to get back to what recruiting used to be in the early 2010’s.

Popo Aumavae (center) visited Eugene and committed after the Stanford game.

Popo Aumavae (center) visited Eugene and committed after the Stanford game.

Yet, after the home loss at the hands of Stanford, Oregon received two verbal commitments.

One is from a rising wide receiver from Arizona, Johnny Johnson III, who is currently a 3-star. His ranking changed from a 2-star quickly since his de-commitment from UNLV after hearing about his offer from the U of O. USC has supposedly started communicating with Johnson and may offer, too.

The second commitment came from one of the official visitors that witnessed the game atmosphere. Scout 4-star lineman, Popo Aumavae, is a huge commitment for Oregon. It’s not just his size, though. Aumavae is equally capable of playing on either side of the ball. With losses to medical retirement from Rex Manu and Canton Kaumatule and the dismissal of Austin Maolata, the D-line has taken a serious hit to depth and talent that is so crucial for the Ducks. This commitment was well timed.

The inspirational win against Utah was a sign that the Ducks are not upside down in the water. There is still life in this program. Helfrich has not lost his team, and he is still competing, which will help the current targets take a closer look. A convincing win in Corvallis Friday may provide enough momentum to salvage the recruiting season, and hopefully it will be enough to maintain job security for Helfrich and Hoke.

Najee Harris is committed to Alabama but a flip to Oregon may keep Gary Campbell from retiring.

Najee Harris is committed to Alabama but a flip to Oregon may give Gary Campbell his biggest star yet.

At this point, Oregon fans hope for a return to normalcy in recruitment. This means finishing strong, unlike last year. In recent years, the program was able to sign major prospects in the waning days, including a signing day USC flip to Oregon announcement from DeAnthony Thomas.

This is what can spark the 2017 season. Let’s see a 5-star target flip to Oregon. To equal “DAT” status, it would have to be the likes of Najee Harris spurning Alabama to give running backs coach Gary Campbell another prized pupil, or Jaelan Phillips realizing that UCLA is where defensive line talent goes to become irrelevant and becoming a Duck instead.

Being able to enjoy a 5-star recruit has been normal in recent years, especially from 2010-13 and again in 2015. At this point, it may be the first time since 2010 that Oregon will miss two years in a row. We’ll find out in just over two months.

Baron Browning could be the first 5-star safety for Oregon, ever.

Baron Browning could be the first 5-star safety for Oregon, ever.

The current offer list does not suggest that there will be a 5-star signing February 1st. There are only five uncommitted 5-stars left on Oregon’s board and none of them are high on the Quackers.

Cornerback Darnay Holmes is a UCLA lean if he doesn’t commit to Nebraska. Linebacker Baron Browning doesn’t even have Oregon in his top 5 list and most likely travels from Texas to take his talents to Alabama or Ohio State.

Two others are both offensive tackles. The first is Trey Smith, who is all but committed to Tennessee. The second is from the state of Washington. I’ve been high on Foster Sarell since the beginning. I know he will be one to make an immediate impact anywhere he goes. His heart seems to be home with Washington and his head is with Stanford.

Joseph Lewis is the WR prospect Oregon needs for 2017.

Joseph Lewis is the WR prospect Oregon needs for 2017.

The final uncommitted 5-star Oregon would like to claim is receiver, Joseph Lewis. The only way the Ducks land this dynamic receiver is if he realizes that the combination of immediate playing time with relative success will translate into his commitment.

Currently, Oregon has one receiver committed, and he was mentioned above and sits at the 25th spot of the 26 offers to wideouts. Only the JUCO receiver is below the current commit, probably because the JUCO guy hasn’t been rated yet.

One receiver was taken last year in Dillon Mitchell. The year prior is was Alex Ofodile. That’s it. The 2014 class brought in Jalen Brown, Charles Nelson and Zac Schuller as a JUCO transfer. If Oregon expects to get back to normal with recruiting highly talented wide receivers, it can’t come from getting Johnson. Lewis needs to be the one!

Or 4-star Thomas Graham gets recruited to play offense instead of his cornerback position. Hopefully it will help that Hoke has brought in a few defensive kids from LA and lands one or both of Lewis and Graham.

Austin Jackson can bolster an offensive line as a freshman.

Austin Jackson can bolster an offensive line as a freshman.

If Oregon happens to miss on a 5-star this year again, I hope that it brings in some high 4-star targets that feel like 5-stars for Ducks fans. Keeping Deommodore Lenoir and getting his buddies, Rahyme Johnson and Graham will feel good. Also, a needed safety prospect, Bubba Bolden, and an inside linebacker, Nate McBride, would give me serious warm fuzzies on signing day and help me forget what “5-star” means.

Landing a couple 4-star offensive linemen this year can help relieve the pressure of signing that improbable 5-star. I really like Austin Jackson, Chuck Filiaga and/or Aaron Banks. Put them in the mix of the great 2015 offensive line recruiting class Helfrich landed, and Oregon will have solid depth across the O-line. These extraordinary additions to the 2017 class would definitely feel like getting back to normal.

As much as I love following recruiting, it bothers me when one of the better programs in the nation fails to meet its potential in recruitment (unless it’s Florida). Oregon let me down a bit last year, but seeing so many freshmen making an impact this year has made me forget the actual number of last year’s ranking.

If the Ducks end the season 2-0, I have to feel optimistic about who the staff can pull into the class by February. If the Ducks sign a top-20 recruiting class, it will be like getting back to normal, and it’s essential to keep Helfrich to do so.


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Top photo by Craig Strobeck

Jason Fowler
Spokane, WA
Follow me on Twitter @buzzbrother2

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