For a few years, there may not have been another school in the country that had the recruiting reach of Oregon. The Ducks filled up their classes with players from both the Southeast and the Pacific, doing whatever it took to level the playing field with the talent-laden programs east of the Mississippi.
Unfortunately, this strategy has ruffled some feathers. The rest of the country prefers that the Pac-12 sticks to its less-talented side of the map. There’s already plenty of local competition for the big names down south, after all. With western schools like Oregon thinning the talent pool even further, some of the eastern schools are beginning to show vulnerability.
So they’ve retaliated.
Eastern schools are now infiltrating the West like wildfire — specifically California — significantly weakening the Pac-12’s only stronghold. Do the Ducks have a counter-move, or is this the start of an inevitable downfall for a conference on its last legs?
The Battle for California
Recruiting in the West starts and stops with winning the state of California. It’s a top-three recruiting hotbed nationwide, and it’s by far the best source of talent west of Texas. Typically, the program that gets the best prospects from the Golden State ends up the Pac-12 recruiting champion.
Until recently, that was USC every year. But the Ducks have taken advantage of a very tumultuous time for the Trojans, and have established an energy and passion for recruiting in Eugene that hasn’t been there before. This has helped the Ducks close what had been a pretty wide gap between the two programs. And for the first time in its history, Oregon has out-recruited USC in its own backyard, getting commitments from one five-star and five four-star Californians in 2019.
But the Ducks aren’t throwing a victory parade any time soon. Winning California is great for Pac-12 supremacy, but nationally, it still puts the Ducks a notch below other blue-blood programs.
With only one state of elite talent to distribute among 12 or more (Big 12 schools dip into California too) programs, pickings are relatively slim in the West. So for teams like Oregon, which are trying to compete with the big boys from the SEC, simply recruiting California isn’t enough. That’s why the Ducks have ventured out east.
On the other side of the fence, teams like Clemson, Alabama and LSU view recruiting the West as a potential opportunity to capitalize on their superiority. Down south, there’s much more talent to be distributed, but there are also many more top-level programs fighting for it. So instead of fighting tooth and nail with a dozen recruiting powerhouses, why not go out west where these programs will likely face much less competition due to their program and conference pedigrees?
The result has been a melting pot of top-rated eastern prospects going west and vice versa. But it hasn’t been an evenly distributed process. The Ducks have to compete with the ACC, Big 10 and SEC when they recruit prospects from the East. That puts them at a disadvantage, as these conferences have much more clout than the Pac-12. While the Ducks are slowly becoming a big-time player in the recruiting game, they’re not completely there yet. The coaches on staff realize this, and their goal isn’t to rely on eastern prospects to build the foundation of the class, but to use them to complement the regional recruits that they sign.
However, while the Ducks are facing stiff competition on the opposite side of the country, eastern programs that travel west are having much more success. In this cycle alone, it’s expected that three of the top five prospects in California (Justin Flowe, DJ Uiagalelei and Elias Ricks) will go east, with five-star Sav’ell Smalls from Washington and four-star Jordan Botelho from Hawaii also in contention to leave Pac-12 territory.
This is extremely troubling for all of the Pac-12, but specifically for the Ducks. They primarily built their conference-best, seventh-overall recruiting class in 2019 with elite western prospects. Now, there’s more competition than ever in the region that was once the only safe haven for west coast schools.
And to make matters worse, perhaps the most difficult yet valuable position to find on the recruiting trail, elite defensive linemen, are typically scarce out west. This year, they’re practically nonexistent. While states like California often provide ample quarterback and skill position talent, the best of the best in the trenches reside in SEC territory.
So the task for the Ducks is not only to fend off greedy eastern schools from poaching their local talent, but to somehow sign some ever-important defensive line prospects in a region where there are barely any of them.
This is a new challenge for Cristobal. His last spot was in the talent-rich state of Alabama, which was in close proximity to the talent-rich states of Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, etc. The point is, big, athletic defensive linemen grow on trees down south. They don’t out west, as evidenced by the mere two four-star defensive tackle and strong side defensive end prospects west of Texas in the 2020 cycle.
So the Ducks are getting creative. They’re still going after the best that the West has to offer, but those prospects don’t rank as highly as one would expect. One of their top targets is three-star defensive end DeShawn Lynch. Although he’s only a three-star, he’s the best strong side defensive end in California, so getting a commitment from him is a priority. The Ducks are in a great spot with him; experts expect him to “quack” before long.
Jamar Sekona is another defensive lineman whom the staff is targeting heavily. He’s a four-star and is also the top-rated player at his position (defensive tackle) in California. The Ducks aren’t as heavy favorites for him as they are for Lynch, but they still have a good shot to land him.
However, there’s a considerable dropoff after these two players, and if the Ducks do miss out on one or both of them, they’re going to have to settle for players who are rated much lower than fans would like to see. But that’s why the coaches get paid the big bucks. The Ducks are putting their scouting skills to the test, searching for under-the-radar prospects who can make an impact despite their relatively low rankings.
One such prospect whom the staff is high on is three-star defensive tackle Kobe Pepe from St. John Bosco. Pepe isn’t a blue-chip recruit, but he’s a player with intriguing tape from a high school with a good reputation. He wouldn’t be the staff’s first choice in other years, or if the team had a better shot to land some of the elite southeastern prospects. But with the circumstances as they are, he’s a good find who could turn out to be a diamond in the rough.
At other positions, where there’s either a scarcity of western talent or unexpected competition from eastern schools, the Ducks are applying the same strategy. They’ve zeroed in on a couple of relatively unknown prospects at a variety of positions. At linebacker, Carson Bruener is a player that the staff looks like it’s willing to take right now, despite his status as a mid-range three-star. The coaches like his potential to add some size to his frame, and perhaps more importantly, he’s a Washington legacy player (his dad was a tight end for the Huskies), so adding him would be a huge slap in the face to “that team up north.”
If Bruener is relatively unknown, weak side defensive end prospect Stephen Sings borders on completely undiscovered. Sings doesn’t even have a ranking in 247Sports’ composite system, but their own services have him as a low three-star. According to ScoopDuck, defensive coordinator Andy Avalos is really high on Sings’ potential, and he’s a guy that the Ducks will take if he wants to commit.
And finally, running backs coach Jim Mastro has his eyes set on a three-star tailback from Mississippi. Trey Benson isn’t nearly the caliber of player that will get fans excited, but Mastro and the coaches love what he brings to the table. They prefer him to some other running backs who have interest in the Ducks, many of which are rated higher than Benson.
Upon first glance, this strategy that Cristobal is using seems like a carbon copy of the Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich formula, which resulted in underwhelming recruiting classes of “under-the-radar” (mid-range three-star) prospects. But, although the Ducks will sign some players who fall into that category in the 2020 class, the two cases are completely different.
Kelly and Helfrich recruited as they did out of pure submissiveness. They wanted no parts of waging recruiting wars with USC and UCLA, nor did they believe that they had any business winning all but a handful of them. So, they made their marks by scouting better than many programs in the country, and added players who weren’t on the national radar.
But this isn’t a sustainable strategy (see Kelly’s struggles at UCLA). Conversely, Cristobal and his staff focus all of their initial attention on the best of the best. That’s why the Ducks are in the running for a handful of five-stars, and it’s why they were able to land Kayvon Thibodeaux in 2019’s class.
But when they begin to lose ground with some of them, as looks to be the case with some of their top 2019 targets (Flowe, Uiagalelei and Botelho, for example), their backup plan is to use top-level scouting in order to find realistic targets who can still fill those positions of need. In some cases, those players are still highly ranked, like four-star quarterback Jay Butterfield, who’s a major Oregon lean. In others, they are middle-of-the-pack three-stars, like some of the players mentioned in this article.
The difference between this staff and previous ones is that the coaches today recruit under-the-radar prospects as a fallback option. Helfrich and Kelly primarily did so from the jump. It’s not ideal, but the Ducks need to recruit someone, even if they can’t land a five- or four-star at a position of need. These coaches are doing things the right way; it’s not their fault that Clemson, Alabama and company are diluting an already thin talent pool.
Until the Ducks start playing up to the standard of a blue-blood program, this may be the new normal. Because they have great recruiters on staff, they’ll always be in the running for a handful of top-tier players. But if they want to consistently win recruiting battles with eastern schools for top-100 players, they’ll need to start backing up their recruiting pitches with on-field results.
Morgantown, West Virginia Top Photo by Kevin Cline
And a special thanks to the experts and insiders at 247Sports and ScoopDuck, who provide fans with the best and most in-depth Oregon recruiting news in the industry. Subscribe to each of them for premium content and the most up-to-date recruiting news.
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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