The Oregon Ducks need a cohesive, radical strategy to overcome their recruiting disadvantages, or they are doomed to repeat Wednesday's lukewarm performance on National Signing Day.
Although they picked up some good players with great attitudes that will help this team win in 2014 and beyond, the class was rated 26th in the country by Rivals. Aaron Fentress, Scott Reed and Tony DiFrancisco of Rivals, and a host of national writers and recruiting analysts all characterized the 2014 recruiting class as a disappointment.
Winning at recruiting matters. The last 8 National Champions have all had two or more classes ranked in the top ten. Like it or not, Signing Day success as measured by recruiting star rankings correlates strongly to on-field success. Alabama, three-time National Champions under Nick Saban, has won the the #1 ranking six years in a row. Florida State, the reigning champions, came to the Rose Bowl with four top ten classes in a row.
It's not an accident that these teams dominate in the rankings and dominate on the field. Although it's easy to produce anecdotal evidence of two and three-stars who became great players, because the field of two and three-star players is so much greater, talent wins football games. When Oregon lines up against elite teams, the advantage in size and strength is a big deficit to overcome, and it will continue to be.
Stanford and USC landed the 14th and 10th-best classes in the country this week. The Trojans grabbed 11 4- and 5-star players, The Cardinal, 9.
Particularly concerning was the Duck's inability to recruit a true nose tackle for their 3-4 defense, after losing five defensive linemen this January. None of Oregon's d-line commits is listed at more than 270 pounds, although Coach Helfrich said during his Signing Day presentation that Austin Maloata has reached 291.
The biggest challenge for Oregon in recruiting continues to be location. Eugene is a long way from the recruiting hotbeds of Southern California, Texas, and the Southeast. In the last weekend of January defensive tackle recruit Trey Lealaimatafao came to Eugene for a scheduled offical visit from his home in San Antonio, Texas, and the trip was a nightmare for him and his mother. It included a 5 1/2 hour flight delay, finally arriving in town at 11:25 Friday night after leaving home early in the morning.
The exhausting, frustrating experience pretty much sealed the deal on Trey L. becoming a Duck. On Wednesday he chose LSU, a day's drive from home.
Although he may have done so anyway, given the Tigers' awesome reputation as a school that develops defensive linemen for the pros, the visit experience was a major detriment, and it illustrates what Oregon is up against in recruiting. There are just a handful of top recruits produced in the state every season. The state of Georgia alone produces around 250 D-1 prospects every year.
The Ducks have made inroads into Florida and Texas, and the 2014 team features players from ten different states. Even so, the coaching staff has to overcome some harsh realities to stay competitive in the future:
1. Recruiting is accelerated.
Players enter the process and make decisions earlier and earlier. Through camps, clinics, combines and 7-on-7 competition, elite players get identified earlier and get wider exposure much sooner than ever before. An increasing number of kids commit in the spring and summer of their junior years, and many top prospects are offered as sophomores.
2. Oregon's uniforms and offense aren't the lure they were in the Chip Kelly years.
Both have been widely copied. Everybody's wearing flashy designs, innovative and multiple looks, shiny helmets. Up-tempo offenses abound. Scoring is up everywhere, even the SEC.
Kelly, though he was often an indifferent and reluctant recruiter, had a magnetism and personality that gave the Oregon program a special identity. There was a swagger, an intensity of focus, a productive kind of arrogance. His teams played with a chip on their shoulder. They were confident in a meaningful way. They destroyed routine opponents. Somehow, some way, the Ducks need to recover that part of their identity. It's what made Oregon a drawing card in recruiting, and a national power on the field. They overachieved, because they believed.
Chip Kelly is gone, but there's a lot Mariota, Frost and Helfrich can do to make Oregon football cool again. It starts with winning with style. The Duck will do the rest.
3. Stanford is here to stay, and formidable
David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh have transformed the Stanford program, and they've developed a niche in recruiting that is tremendously powerful. Elite, intelligent athletes gravitate to the Stanford degree. They attract players that stay five years, big, powerful linemen, players who understand that getting a Stanford education will do as much for their lifetime earning power as a crack at a brief career in the NFL.
Oregon has to realistically contend with the Stanford advantage and their ability to pull a select group of recruits with a unique appeal. The Ducks built a brand, but it doesn't have the power at 11-2 or 9-3. They have to get back to winning with dominance and style. They have to be excellent again.
4. The Hatfield-Dowlin Complex isn't the recruiting boon it was made out to be.
It's a dazzling building, but a building can only do so much. Other schools have weight rooms, meeting rooms and player amenities. The building impresses, but it's not a deciding factor for most kids. They want to know the program can get them to the NFL. They want an opportunity to get early playing time. They want a scheme that gives them a chance to showcase their talents. They want their friends and family to have an opportunity to see them play.
The Ducks can't coast. They can't rely on the selling points that have worked in the past. And they must face the fact while players gravitated to Chip Kelly and his offense, the Helfrich Ducks don't have the same mystique and cache.
The have to identify and capitalize on a new strategy and new selling points. Here are a few ideas:
1. Marcus Mariota's third-year as a starter can be a showcase for the Oregon program.
Mariota is the best quarterback in college football, and if they can keep him healthy, featured as the focal point of a prolific, varied, excited and productive offense, the 2014 season can be a six-month long recruiting video for the Oregon program.
There is a bumper crop of elite dual threat quarterbacks, all-purpose running backs and receivers in the 2015 class, and Scott Frost has to put magic and dynamism back in the Oregon scheme. If Mariota and the Ducks are explosive enough and achieve their potential, it can rekindle the enthusiasm for playing at Autzen in a dramatic way.
If they do so, they can turn ESPN into an advertisement for the Oregon way. The Worldwide Leader loves a bandwagon and a storyline. Give them one. Grab college football by the neck in 2014. Get back to innovating and winning the day.
The Ducks need to get back to hanging 50 on opponents in big games. They need to bury Michigan State and Stanford with a light-up-the-scoreboard display of big plays and memorable moments.
With execution, discipline and preparation, the Mariota-Tyner-Addison-Freeman-Carrington-Grasu-Johnstone-Fisher Ducks could be the most electric offense in NCAA history. They could single-handedly rewrite the record book and inspire a new edition of EA Sports NCAA Football or whatever replaces it. They could end the debate about whether Oregon can compete with elite teams or big, physical teams or SEC powers or anyone else.
Frost has to be on his game, and Mariota has to be the bold, confident leader that is within him. If he is, and he stays healthy, he could have one the most dominant and memorable seasons in the history of the game. Imagine how good this offense can be with the weapons it has, with the speed and dual-threat ability he possesses. Jarrett Stidham and Taj Griffin will see themselves in this offense. The allure of it will be higher than ever.
The 2014 season stands out as Oregon's best chance to grab college football's two biggest prizes, the National Championship and the Heisman Trophy. While both are improbable, the Ducks best chance to cap their great run of success and cement a place among elite schools is to complete the dream. Mariota sweeping to that coveted double lifts Oregon recruiting in a way the H-C never could, particularly if he punctuates it by becoming the top pick in the NFL Draft. There wouldn't be any question about whether Oregon had arrived.
2. The Ducks need to improve their pipeline to Hawaii and Samoa.
Players from both chains of islands are already aware of the Oregon program after the successes of Haloti Ngata, Wade Keliikipi, Jeremiah Masoli and Mariota, among a long line of other Duck talents from the Polynesian cultures of Tonga and Samoa.
There is a wealth of pride, talent and ferocity among players from these locales, many of whom are undervalued and underexposed as Division One prospects.
Anybody want to bet what the most popular-selling college football jersey is in Hawaii? I'll bet it's a green-and-silver number eight.
Now is the time for Oregon to become THE destination for elite players from the islands, particularly big offensive and defensive linemen. The staff needs to strengthen recruiting connections and their network of coaches, develop better sources for scouting information and film.
These are kids for whom distance is far less of barrier. They're looking for opportunity.
Someone on the Oregon staff needs to strengthen community resources for Polynesian players. Whether it's the menu in the H-C nutrition center or recreational, educational and social opportunities, the tools and amenities have to be there to foster a long-term commitment to bringing quality, motivated athletes from this culture to campus.
The nucleus Oregon has of successful players from this community, Mariota, Tua Talia, Haniteli Lousi, Maloata; Wade Keliikipi, Ricky Havili-Hemuli, and great names from the past like Junior Siavii, Fenuki Tupou, Tasi Malepeai and others, can be a bridge to future success. The Ducks need a cohesive plan, a summit and a strategy, for making this happen now. It starts with a commitment to understanding and appealing to island players, making sincere, long-term connections that matter among scouts and coaches. The staff has to strengthen their network and efforts across the Pacific.
3. The Ducks need some success on the defensive line
Somehow, some way, Oregon has to improve their track record developing defensive linemen for the pros. They have to identify earlier and more vigorously the defensive tackle prospects with Oregon interest, and make it a priority to find them, offer them and get them to visit in the spring, summer and early fall.
Success breeds success in all contexts. Nabbing a Heisman or an Outland Trophy makes it that much easier to recruit the next guy who can win one. It's a shame Oregon followed the Haloti Ngata/Igor Olshansky years with a period of strikeouts at defensive tackle, where highly-touted recruits washed out or failed to qualify. The Ducks have great traditions at quarterback, running back and in the secondary, but there's no corresponding chain of greatness in the middle of the d-line. They need to start one. Players gravitate to a school where there's someone who plays in their style, a player they follow or pattern their game after. A generation of fast, speedy running backs want to go to the school that showcased LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas. The Ducks need to end the void at defensive tackle.
It would help if Don Pellum and Ron Aiken unleashed their DTs to penetrate and make plays. As Brandon Oliver pointed out recently in Bleacher Report, elite big guys don't want to come to a school where they are expected to be caddies for the linebackers, soaking up blocks and laboring anonymously in the trenches.
The next time the Ducks have the opportunity to hire a graduate assistant or a line coach, some strong consideration ought to be given to choosing a guy with roots and connections to the Polynesian community. A coach with drive, energy, vision and the ability to teach technique, absolutely, but a demonstrated ability to connect with players, an understanding of their family and community structures, might make a powerful difference in results. I wonder if any of those former Ducks has served an appropriately rigorous apprenticeship to be that kind of candidate.
The Ducks need a Tosh Lupoi of their own, but one with integrity and attention to detail, the ability to develop players as well as befriend them.