A Defense of Helfrich’s Recruiting Legacy

David Marsh Editorials

Mark Helfrich is generally considered the worst recruiter in modern Oregon football history. He is a coach who oversaw some of Oregon’s highest and lowest moments in the past twenty years. He was fired with a 37-16 overall record, a winning record.

Most fans would say it was Helfrich’s inability to recruit that led to his demise and the demise of the program. But in truth, Helfrich was not outside the norm for Oregon recruiting at that time, and he was actually better than most fans give him credit for.

By The Numbers

According to Rivals, Helfrich’s recruiting classes from 2013-2016 were ranked as follows: 22, 26, 17 and 25. This gives Helfrich an average recruiting ranking of 22.5 over his four years. Not great by Oregon’s current standards, but certainly acceptable for the time.

In Chip Kelly’s four years as Oregon’s head coach, his recruiting classes from 2008-2012 were ranked 32, 13, 9 and 16. Until the Mario Cristobal era, this was considered the peak of Oregon recruiting. However, it is worth noting that Kelly’s 2011 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 9 by Rivals, was not a consensus top 10 recruiting class. Rivals was the only major site to rank Oregon’s class inside the top 10. During the Kelly era, the Ducks’ average recruiting ranking was 17.5 on Rivals. It is better than Helfrich’s by only five spots, and it is also worth noting that Kelly’s worst recruiting class ranked lower than Helfrich’s.

Chip Kelly was a special coach at a special time in Oregon’s history. He has yet to replicate what he accomplished at Oregon.

Now, for the sake of comparing Helfrich with his predecessors, Mike Bellotti’s last four recruiting classes from 2005-2008 averaged a 26.8 ranking. Over these three coaching eras at Oregon, there were some drastic and dynamic changes happening within college football and also in the nature of recruiting.

First off, Kelly had something truly special working for him on the recruiting trail in that his offense was new, flashy and super fun to watch. Also, at the end of the Bellotti era, Oregon was rolling out new uniforms yearly, and that trend only accelerated under Kelly. Between the new offense and the new uniforms, Kelly caught lightning in a bottle and was able to win some major recruiting battles. Perhaps the most iconic is De’Anthony Thomas flipping to Oregon from USC on signing day. A recruiting win of this magnitude would not be replicated until the 2019 class when Oregon landed Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Because of wins like Thomas, Kelly is usually credited with being the best recruiter at Oregon — until Cristobal. However, Kelly has not been able to replicate his recruiting success at UCLA, which sits in the middle of the the Pac-12’s biggest recruiting hotbed. From 2018-2022, Kelly’s average Rivals ranking is 36.2.

De’Anthony Thomas was perhaps the biggest steal in Oregon recruiting history.

Helfrich Era Recruits

Helfrich was actually responsible for bringing in some of best players in Oregon’s recent history. As many have heard over the years, it was Helfrich, not Kelly, who was responsible for recruiting Oregon’s only Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota.

Besides Mariota, it was Helfrich who brought Justin Herbert to Oregon. Both were only rated as three-star recruits, though they would become two of the best quarterbacks to ever play for the Ducks. Herbert only played one year for Helfrich, but for both Willie Taggart and Cristobal, Herbert would play an integral role in their success at Oregon.

Beyond the quarterback position, Helfrich also recruited Troy Dye, who played an central role in rebuilding Oregon’s defense after it bottom out in 2016. Royce Freeman still holds many of the running back records at Oregon. Charles Nelson, Darren Carrington and Devon Allen were all dynamic receivers for the Ducks over the years and were brought in during the Helfrich era. Even CJ Verdell originally committed to Helfrich and stuck with the program after the coaching turnover.

However, for all the hits, there were some critical misses. Thomas Tyner is one of the biggest recruits in Oregon prep history, and his freshman year saw him set the record for most rushing yards by a true freshman at 711. This record would be eclipsed a year later by Royce Freeman. However, Tyner only played two seasons for Oregon in 2013 and 2014 before he medically retired at Oregon. He would finish his career a few years later at Oregon State, as players can come out of medical retirement but can’t play from the school they retired from.

Thomas Tyner runs against Flordia State in the 2015 Rose Bowl game, perhaps his best game as a Duck.

Another highly ranked recruit in the 2015 class, Canton Kaumatule, was supposed to be the next DeForest Buckner or Arik Armstead, standing at 6’7 and 275 pounds out of high school. That would never come to pass, however, as he would only appear in a handful of games before medically retiring from football at Oregon.

Other 2015 Rivals four-star recruits included Kirk Merritt, Ugo Amadi, Malik Lovette, Travis Johnson (Waller), Alex Ofodile, Taj Griffin and Zack Okun. Of that list, only Amadi turned out to be a major success at Oregon. However, many other successful names from that same recruiting class were three-star recruits: Jake Hansen, Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux, and Jacob Breeland.

A Change in Recruiting

Perhaps the greatest thing Helfrich had going against him was his desire maintain the recruiting process upheld by his long-tenured Oregon staff. Many members of Helfrich’s staff had been with the program through the Bellotti and Kelly eras. These were the coaches who truly made the Oregon program great. The times were changing, though, and the nature of recruiting was evolving in a way that an aging staff was ill-equipped to deal with: the rise of social media.

Mark Helfrich coaches Oregon to a Pac-12 Championship in 2014.

The Bellotti and Kelly eras may have seen the start of social media in the the early-to-mid 2000s, but social media didn’t really hit its stride until the early 2010s. Today’s teenagers pretty much exclusively communicate via social media. Oregon’s current coach, Dan Lanning, has an extensive social media presence. It is difficult to miss the massive amount of photo edits that make it onto prospective recruits’ Twitter pages. The game changed, and the greatest failing of the Helfrich era was his staff’s inability to change with the times.

However, Helfrich was not a bad recruiting by Oregon’s standards at that time. In fact, he was actually quite a solid recruiter. It took the Taggart and Cristobal eras to build Oregon into a recruiting powerhouse. Scott Frost was absolutely right about Oregon recruiting being difficult. The nature of college football has changed, and recruiting is more important than ever. This means that coaches like Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich with their long-tenured staffs would no longer work at Oregon.

Helfrich was a good recruiter for the old Oregon. He just wouldn’t be good enough for today’s Oregon.

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By John Sperry

Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.

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