For folks who had doubts about Oregon football post-Chip Kelly, who wondered whether the reign of dominance was over, whether Mark Helfrich and the new staff had the stuff to succeed a legend, today's much-anticipated announcement is a ringing endorsement for the new regime.
Whatever doubts anyone may have about Duck football, Hroniss Grasu, Marcus Mariota and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu do not share them. This morning Ekpre-Olomu became the third of Oregon's all-conference stars to declare he was returning for the 2014 season. So far, only cornerback Terrance Mitchell and running back/returner/slot receiver De'Anthony Thomas have decided to leave, each for valid and personal reasons, wanting to pursue a dream in professional football.
Ifo for the prosecution: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu provides the Law and Order for the Ducks, here making the Oregon State Beavers a member of his special victims unit, nabbing an interception in the end zone in the Civil War (Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports).
Ifo's big decision gives the Ducks exceptional maturity and leadership next season. With those three setting the tone, it will be a purposeful, committed group that takes the field for spring practice and begins off season workouts next week. The three are not coming back to play in another Alamo Bowl. Each could have made millions in the NFL draft, and elected to stay in school because they love the college experience, their teammates, and playing for Scott Frost, John Neal, Steve Greatwood and Mark Helfrich.
Another benefit of recruiting for ability AND character is that a program gets and keeps players like these, leaders who make mature decisions.
An additional benefit is that the three will be around to convey the Oregon way to a new generation, passing the legacy to youthful stars like Doug Brenner, Tyrell Crosby, Morgan Mahalak, Budda Baker, and Arrion Springs.
A three-year starter at defensive back who had 84 tackles and 3 interceptions this season, Ekpre-Olomu will anchor a young secondary with three new starters, giving the Ducks a lock-down presence on one side of the field, fierce and physical in run support. He may be the most complete football player in the country, a playmaker who shows up all over the field: in the Alamo Bowl against Texas, he swooped in to down a punt at the three in the fourth quarter, a brilliant and athletic play that typifies his effort. As a sophomore in 2012 he had 20 pass deflections and 6 forced fumbles.
Rob Moseley of goducks.com describes Ifo as an "old soul," an attribute he shares with Mariota and Grasu. Each had the opportunity to be taken as the first player at their position. All three have completed or are nearing completion of their degrees. As a trio they delayed 60 million dollars in compensation to remain with the Oregon Ducks. That's a level of devotion that's staggering in the modern world. Don't anyone try to say that there's not something special about college football, particularly in Eugene.
Without the senior-to-be from Chino Hills, California, the Ducks had a promising but raw defense of good young athletes. With him, they have a defense anchored by one of the best players in college football, an exceptional leader who will make everyone of them better, cleaning up mistakes, teaching and directing traffic on the field, making big plays and big stops in timely moments.
If they weren't all ready, the Ducks just became national championship contenders. You can't possibly land players with this much impact in recruiting. As a trio, the benefit of their return is almost immeasurable in points, yards and wins.