For years, no matter how successful the Ducks were on the field, they were never able to break through in recruiting. They attracted their share of talent, but they failed to put together the truly exceptional classes that define the blue bloods of the sport.
It’s safe to say that now, with the sixth-best recruiting class in the country, including five-star pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Ducks’ days of playing second fiddle on the recruiting trail are over.
Mario Cristobal and his staff are doing the unthinkable: outperforming the typical recruiting powers of USC, Texas, Michigan and Oklahoma in the college football arms race. The Ducks’ 2019 recruiting haul proves that they can indeed recruit with the best of the best.
But what has yet to be determined is whether they can play with the best of the best.
With an immensely talented group of recruits joining an already loaded roster, it’s time for the Ducks to turn talent into results. Winning national signing day is great, but winning on the field is what counts. How the Ducks make use of their star-studded class will determine whether they are truly on the path to once again becoming a powerhouse program, or if they are more sizzle than substance.
The Ducks’ Recent Recruiting Classes Have Underperformed
The Ducks have been steadily building one of the top rosters in the conference for a few years now. They have put together top-20 classes each year since 2015, outside of a relatively poor recruiting cycle in 2016 (per 247sports). But their recruiting success hasn’t translated to the field, with a pedestrian 19-18 record over the past three seasons. There are several possible reasons that the Ducks have struggled to play up to their potential.
Going through three head coaches in as many years causes program upheaval that is very difficult to overcome. Furthermore, the Ducks’ offensive transition this season didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Under the previous three coaching staffs, the Ducks’ offense was a lock to be one of the top units in the entire country. Injuries at the quarterback position slowed down Willie Taggart’s unit in 2017, but the offensive systems that each former coach ran were rarely the root of the team’s problems.
This season, the players and offensive coaches took nearly the entire year to find their footing. They made a wholesale shift from the team’s previous iterations of the spread, and centered the new offense around a more simplistic, downhill rushing attack, primarily from the pistol formation. As a result of the rocky transition, the offense regressed, despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the west and a veteran offensive line.
While the team’s struggles were reasonable under these circumstances, similar struggles won’t be reasonable going forward. There’s finally stability with the coaching staff, and everyone is familiar by now with the new offensive system.
In a sport where the landscape can change in an instant, the Ducks don’t have time for a methodical rebuild. They need to utilize the talent they’ve acquired to put their recent struggles behind them and re-establish themselves as contenders while they have such a golden opportunity.
With Their Best Class Yet, the Ducks Are Set Up for Success
The Ducks are better positioned for a title run than they have been in a long time. After pulling in one of the top recruiting classes in the entire country, the Ducks are piecing together a championship-caliber roster. Their most recent haul features a bevy of talented players, including three top-50 prospects and 12 blue-chip recruits. And of course, the headliner is just some guy who happens to be the highest-rated recruit the Ducks have ever signed.
The Ducks have never had this level of premier talent join the flock, even when their program was at its best. And since they already built one of the top rosters in the conference even before this historic class, there is no doubt that this new wave of players gives the Ducks the manpower to rise to the top of the Pac-12 right now.
The Ducks are stacked, and there’s no reason that they should struggle with the likes of Arizona, Utah and Washington State — teams that are largely composed of two- and three-star recruits — for the foreseeable future. The Ducks are recruiting at the level of national-title-contending programs. Middling seasons and appearances in no-name bowl games will no longer be acceptable.
Some may suggest that it is still too early to hold the Ducks to an elite standard. But if they shouldn’t be expected to contend for a championship now, when they’re recruiting better than they ever have, then when should they?
They have had ample time to stabilize and recover from their free-fall in 2016. It’s clear that they have rebounded on the recruiting trail. Now, they need to rebound on the field.
Recruiting is Only Half of the Battle
It’s one thing to recruit with the blue bloods, but it’s another to put that talent to use and compete at the top level. That’s the difference between the teams that are playing for a chance at a national title (Alabama) and those that are spending bowl season on the couch (USC).
If the Ducks don’t start competing for conference championships and playoff appearances soon, while they are getting top-flight prospects, then these top-flight recruiting classes will soon be a thing of the past.
In spite a string of lackluster seasons, they have been able to recruit surprisingly well. That’s a testament to the ability of Cristobal and his staff, but it’s unrealistic to expect that momentum to continue if the Ducks don’t start playing like the contender that they should be sooner rather than later.
So, while we praise the Ducks deservedly for their historic recruiting haul, let’s remember that championships aren’t won on paper. If the Ducks hope to return to the college football elite, they need to take advantage of their recruiting success and perform as well on the field as they’re recruiting off of it.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Eugene Johnson
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester Tennessee.
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