Statistically there is no denying how low the Oregon Ducks football team has gone on the defensive side of the ball. The cause of this rapid decline can be blamed on poor coaching, lack of buying into the system or the increase in talent for other schools to make the Pac-12 more balanced top to bottom. Those ideas are intriguing and may have a part of it, but the biggest reason for inferior play on defense starts with recruiting.
Oregon doesn’t have a tendency to recruit multiple 5-star athletes and dozens of 4-stars. The bulk of each recruiting class typically averages in the upper 3-star range. This is not a bad thing if the prospects are properly evaluated for the needs of the team’s future. This is evident on the field this year by the superior playing ability by true freshmen Troy Dye and Brandon Schooler.
Even with some very bright spots that surprise us fans, some of the top talent gets away from Oregon. It feels like several recruits over the past few years were gift wrapped and personally delivered on the front steps of other universities. It stings when those blue chippers are lost, especially at positions of need.
This is more confounding when you think that Oregon has played for two national titles since 2010. There tends to be a boost in recruiting interest and rankings the year or two after a team has played for the national championship – well, all but Oregon and Alabama (because you can’t improve recruiting rankings when you were No. 1 the year before).
Why can’t the Ducks leap forward with recruiting after so much success? So many other universities do it. Clemson continues to recruit better, along with Notre Dame and Auburn and LSU. Ohio State has seen a huge jump so far for 2017 after winning it all in 2015. There are also teams that don’t find the success on the field but the recruiting is still amazing. This group includes UCLA, USC, LSU and Florida.
Let’s get right to it. The front seven defensively for Oregon is the focus today, and remember, Brady Hoke has changed the old system to the 4-3 scheme and has been defensive coordinator for less than one year. Prior to Hoke’s arrival there were some serious catches and misses on defense that may have changed the outcome over the past few years’ rapid decline.
During the five-game losing streak, it appeared as if this would be a very short paragraph with a couple names on it. After further review, Oregon has been able to land some kids out of high school that have made a positive impact on the defense. From the Class of 2013, Torrodney Prevot leads the pack and is missed right now serving a suspension. Also, linebacker Danny Mattingly hasn’t been a starter but has played some significant reps. Finally, Elijah George has been seeing time on the field in the middle of the line where depth has been an issue this year.
The Class of 2014 was defensively more productive at getting prospects to Eugene. Jimmy Swain was the only linebacker brought in. The others were linemen, beginning with pass rushing specialists Jalen Jelks, Henry Mondeaux and Justin Hollins. The other two were Austin Maloata and Eddie Heard. This group is this year’s foundation of the defensive line.
Canton Kaumatule was the gem of the Class of 2015, being the only 5-star defensive get since Arik Armstead. Although his presence on the field has not been felt like DeForest Buckner a year ago, Kaumatule has the size to be a beast, and I remain optimistic that he will have a break-out game and then – BOOM! – he’ll play up to his early potential.
Other players taken in 2015 included three defensive tackles with Gary Baker, Drayton Carlberg and Rex Manu. The surprise of the class was unranked Kaulana Apelu who got the start most recently at middle linebacker against ASU. Other linebackers include JUCO transfer Jonah Moi and the special teams wrecking ball, Fotu Leiato.
The 2016 class didn’t bring in much on the D-line. Bryson Young and Hunter Kampmoyer were the only ends brought in last year. The solo tackle was Wayne Tei-Kirby who, with the lack of depth and key injuries, is already making an impact. Tei-Kirby is making the most of his time on the field and flying all over making plays.
This was definitely the class for linebackers, with six additions for the position group. Half of them are getting some serious time on the field, with Dye getting freshman honors, AJ Hotchkins as depth from the JUCO route and Keith Simms figuring out how to stuff holes. The other three who will provide depth in the future are LaMar Winston, Darrian Franklin and Eric Briscoe, Jr.
Getting the five D-linemen in 2014 and six linebackers in 2016 gives the Oregon Ducks some great defenders; there were, however, too many holes in the rest of the classes. Some positions have developed a talent gap in the conference in the wrong direction.
Every program will miss out on particular prospects. Not even Alabama will get all its top guys. That’s just recruiting. However, when a school such as Oregon can’t pull in a blue chip at a position where immediate playing time is assuredly guaranteed, then there are issues with selling the university and all it has to offer.
With Oregon there is plenty to talk about; top notch facilities, most progressive and advanced uniforms and equipment, best stadium noise for capacity, excellent educational opportunities, a recent history of a high winning percentage, continuous potential to play early, play for championships, established coaching staff and connections with Nike. There are plenty of perks if discussed in the right light.
Despite the great advantages of going to Oregon, the Ducks have lost out on too many key recruits in recent years – mostly to conference foes and SEC biggies. This is very evident, especially at defensive tackle. Ten of the 12 4- and 5-star DT’s offered by Oregon between 2013 and 2016 chose to go elsewhere in-conference (USC – 3, UCLA – 1) and the SEC (LSU – 2, 1 of each Tennessee, Missouri, Texas A&M and Georgia).
You may remember Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA) from 2013 and Rasheem Green (USC) from 2015. In 2016 there was Rashard Lawrence (LSU) and Julian Rochester (Georgia), each of whom visited Eugene. All four of these defensive tackles would have played as freshmen at Oregon and would have improved the defense, but chose other schools instead.
The defensive ends have been difficult to keep, even after major interest in the Ducks. There were some prospects that seemed more painful to lose than others. Kylie Fitts decided on UCLA (later transferring to Utah) and Davin Bellamy visited and stayed closer to home, signing with Georgia in 2013.
There were at least nine DE’s who visited Eugene in 2016, but the Ducks landed only two. The most memorable ones that got away were Connor Murphy (USC), Thomas Schaffer (Stanford), Isaiahh Loudermilk (Wisconsin), Andrew Fitzgerald (Texas), Amani Bledsoe (Oklahoma), Prince Sammons (Auburn), Brandon Bowen and Isaiah Chambers (TCU), and Xavier Kelly (Clemson). Ouch! That’s a ton of talent that Oregon really needed.
The linebackers of 2013 had a few big names such as Peter Kalambayi (Stanford), who visited Eugene two months before Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt). Three others who were offered and may have made a huge impact early were Michael Hutchings (USC) and the two that chose UCLA, Myles Jack and Hawaiian Isaako Savaiinaea.
Two 4-star LB’s offered by the Ducks were snagged up by Stanford in 2014. Bobby Okereke was one, but the real hurt came from losing Oregonian Joey Alfieri, who the staff didn’t seem to even pursue with much urgency.
The worst linebacking losses were in the class of 2015 when USC was able to lure four of Oregon’s targets away. A 5-star and three high 4-stars seemed to be okay with flooding the Trojans with talent to just waste away into oblivion with chronic underachievement. Osa Masina and John Houston, Jr. snubbed Oregon along with defensive studs Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin.
The four who went to USC were just part of the disaster of recruiting linebackers that year. UCLA stole Josh Woods, and Oregon even lost to Vanderbilt on Josh Smith, who showed a lot of love toward the Ducks but wasn’t very well reciprocated.
Oregon had the chance to make a better linebacker haul in 2016 with prospects that would have most likely started next to Dye this year. Two that seemed so close to loving Oregon ended up signing with Oklahoma – 5-star Caleb Kelly and 4-star Bryce Youngquist who were both from California. Yikes!
Four other significant LBs ended up at other Pac 12 schools. The most athletic was Mique Juarez (UCLA). The others were Lokeni Toailoa (UCLA), Curtis Robinson (Stanford) and Camilo Eifler (Washington).
Oregon has some great talent on the roster this season; clearly, however, there have been some “big fish” that have gotten away. So many have found success at their particular schools, but none of them have played in a National Championship Game. With the addition of several of these misses I’ve mentioned, I believe that Oregon may have played for another title last year. The misses were that important!
The Oregon Ducks’ brand is nationally recognized and has been relevant long enough that young high school football players say that getting a scholarship offer from them is a “dream offer.” There are times when that dream offer isn’t even extended, or is extended very late in the process and ends up being a nightmare. To offer early is not a bad thing if there is mutual interest.
What is clear about all these names is that Oregon should have had a legitimate shot at landing several of these high caliber defensive players. There was interest, a visit or two to Eugene and the talent to make an early impact in each one’s career; however, Oregon was not the right fit for one reason or another and the Ducks missed on the opportunity. Too many misses for any team means long term affects down the road.
This is the hiccup the Ducks are experiencing now. With so many young players making an impact on the field this year, next year Oregon football may be back on track to 10-win seasons again.
Special thanks to Duck Territory at 247sports.com for sharing this information with FishDuck.com. Check out their trial subscriptions for the best up-to-date daily information on Oregon recruiting.
Top photo by Jason Fowler
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