Driven by ESPN, the internet and mushrooming scouting services and recruiting sites, the hype and hoopla around National Signing Day grows every year. The hat ceremonies and gushing predictions of stardom indicate just how big a business college football has become, grown to a riot of glorious excess to rival Super Bowl Media Day.
All over where some uber-talented teenagers decide to go to school, forgetting that several dozen of them will flame out, change their minds or disappear in a season or so. Anyone remember Diante Jackson and Tyrece Gaines? How about Tacoi Sumler and Devon Blackmon? Duck fans, and this website, were giddy about these 4-star wunderkinds when they faxed letters of intent in Februarys past, but each saw their shadow and scurried back home after a season or two of the Oregon winter.
photo left: Enthusiastic Duck fans will have a fresh crop of heroes to root for after National Signing Day on Wednesday. And the Spring Game is just 12 weeks away.
Make no mistake, the decisions matter. Coaching, attitude, hard work and motivation are important, but talent wins football games. Skeptics and die-hard fans will point out how Jeff Maehl, Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James were 3-star recruits, and Marcus Mariota was a little-known, one-year starter when Chip Kelly and the Ducks discovered him, but the roster of National Champion Alabama is loaded with top players, highly-rated physcial specimens who panned out and delivered on their way to an NFL pay day. The Ducks have achieved five sustained years of fabulous success because of their organization, system and evaluation skills, but it does take ability to win, particularly in big games against top opponents.
What Oregon seems to do better than almost anyone is identify kids who fit and belong here, young men with commitment, winners and hitters. Take Juwaan Williams, a recent 3-star commitment from Tucker, Georgia, an 6-1, 180-lb. athlete who played quarterback and defensive back in high school, leading his team to 15-0 record and a state championship as a junior. Poised, tough and physical, Williams fits the Ducks profile, particularly when you add in the fact that he’s an outstanding leader who sports a 3.5 high school G.P.A.
Several recent and current Ducks were high school quarterbacks, including John Boyett, Daryle Hawkins, Bralon Addison and Oshay Dunmore. Invariably kids like these have great vision and instincts, a knack for making plays and handling the big stage. Williams wants to major in pre-med or sports medicine. Any kid who can handle Organic Chemistry shouldn’t have much trouble deciphering the Stanford offense or executing a delayed cornerback blitz.
Go up and down the roster of Oregon verbal commits, and you’ll find several like Williams, Addison and Dunmore. Sharp. State Championship winners. Leaders. Outstanding students. Johnny Mundt plays tight end with soft hands and a movie assassin’s ruthlessness blocking on the perimeter, but he’s also a 3.8 in the classroom.
Fill a roster full of young men who can think and adapt and lead as well as handle a football, and you develop a program with a very high ceiling. There will be some defections and surprises for Duck fans on Wednesday, but the core of this class has the same character and vision they’ve enjoyed rooting for in the last several years.
And that’s an extremely encouraging sign. In the first two quick weeks of the Mark Helfrich era, there have been three solid, decisive coaching hires and four applaudable verbal commitments from athletes who are excellent fits and tremendous prospects. Devon Allen looks like a keeper at wide receiver, 6-1, 190-lb. speedster with great hands, excellent route running skills and a appropriately vicious enthusiasm for blocking downfield. He’s the Arizona state record holder in both the high and low hurdles. Quarterback Damion Hobbs, 6-3, 220, took his team to the Texas State 5-A championship game this December, improving dramatically as a passer, runner and leader in his two seasons at the position. He’s smart and teachable, with the aggressive confidence good athletes have, the size and agility to play multiple positions at the college level. He could develop into a terrific receiver, safety, linebacker or even quarterback at Oregon. What’s most impressive in his film is his decision-making and field vision, qualities he’ll be able to use anywhere as a Duck.
Oregon has risen to the top level of NCAA football with coaching and continuity. Hiring Ron Aiken, an accomplished NFL defensive line coach, to an already terrific staff only increases their credibility with prospects who want to play beyond college, and Aiken’s mastery of technique and fundamentals will allow him to get the most out of deep, veteran group in 2013.
It takes two to three years to truly evaluate a signing class. But it’s a sure bet that the Ducks will put together a promising group on Wednesday. The momentum the new coaching staff has created in this initial month is outstanding, and there’ll be another round of justified optimism when the faxes arrive and the announcements are made. Thomas Tyner is coming, and he’s bringing a dozen and a half fast, smart, talented friends with him.