Chip Kelly was a reluctant genius in recruiting. He had a knack for connecting with kids, but it was a part of the job he didn't have an abiding love for. Though he put together two very solid recruiting classes and a spectacular one that included De'Anthony Thomas, he had a "we'll win with you or without you" approach that succeeded in landing athletes of character and commitment (every athlete he recruited qualified academically and enrolled in school, a phenomenal achievement) but missed out in the battles for some of the nation's top targets.
Recruiting matters. Alabama has had rivals.com's number one recruiting class ranking the last three seasons in a row, and they've won three of the last four national championships. This season they're in the running for three quarters of the nation's Top 50 prospects. It's a powerful synergy, being number one and relentless.
Skeptics will cite the anecdotal stories of two and three-star prospects who made it big, but those stories exist simply because there are far more two and three-star athletes. A few are bound to break through. LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Jeff Maehl all made it at Oregon. The system doesn't measure drive and determination. But what it does do very well is measure talent and physical maturity. The rosters of the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes are dotted with players that are bigger, stronger, faster, some with an edge that makes them certain stars at the next level. Coaching can compensate for the disparity but it can't eliminate it. You can't teach 4.3 speed, or the strength to blow up the point of attack.
Scan the Top 100 recruits at any of the four major recruiting websites, and their potential college choices invariably include one or two of the usual suspects, Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Florida. Stanford and Notre Dame have a sturdy niche among elite recruits, with the extra appeal of their academic tradition and prestige. Master salesman Jim Harbaugh somehow managed to recast the Cardinal as a hard-nosed football school with a blue-collar mentality, an impressive image shift for toney Palo Alto and the school of John Steinbeck, four Supreme Court justices, 18 U.S. Senators and Dame Edith Head.
Everyone has to push their edges. Recruiting has ramped up in the last few years. The timetable is so accelerated that on Junior Day last month Nick Saban extended an offer to 6-1, 215-lb. running back Dylan Moses, who'll be an eighth grader in the fall. Moses already had a scholarship pledge from Les Miles of LSU. ESPN covers recruiting year round with breathless reports about athletes barely old enough to drive and some younger, raving about explosiveness and size and instincts. It's a special kind of insanity in a multimillion dollar business.
The websites and passing leagues and scouting combines have upped the stakes for the kids and the schools. Parents and coaches of prospects market the potential student athletes early and often. The visits start earlier, and so do the backroom deals. Coveted early enrollees take unofficial visits as sophomores and juniors. They've learned to understand leverage, and use it.
Oregon isn't named by more than a handful of the top 250 recruits in the country. It's a simple fact that many want to play for a school closer to home, and the rainy Northwest only produces a few four and five-star players in a given year. Elite size and speed is concentrated in the South where football is a religion, and in California and Texas. Competition is fierce for the top players.
The Ducks recent success has raised their profile. Among college football fans 17 and younger they're the second most popular team after the Gators. The flashy uniforms and dynamic offense appeal to the video game generation. It opens some doors, particularly with skill position players, speed athletes who want to showcase their talents. There's a new generation of kids who grew up liking Oregon, that went through junior high with LaMichael James or Dion Jordan as their favorite player. It gives the Ducks an in with elite prospects like running back Joe Mixon or outside linebacker Dwight Williams.
Under Mark Helfrich, the Oregon coaching staff maintains the same standards of character and work ethic in searching for players, but they're getting out there earlier and making more offers. New receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Matt Lubick is known as a dynamite recruiter with connections all over the country, and his success teaching the passing game, turning out a trio of high output receivers at Duke last season, will give the Ducks some added recruiting muscle and crediblity.
To extend Oregon's run of success, they'll have to recruit well and capitalize on the school's image as Nike branded and highly entertaining. They'll also have to minimize the damage from the seemingly endlessly unresolved NCAA investigation. Helfrich's personal integrity and sincerity should help him as a closer. He's a coach players would want to play for, and a man parents would trust with their son's future.
So far the Ducks have no verbal commitments for the 2014 class, which isn't unusual. The level of activity is higher, though, and that's encouraging. They'll strive to continue the traditions of emphasizing speed, character and a good fit for the program, narrowing the talent gap with other top schools by making the most of their number one assets, continuity and coaching. The energy and enthusiasm Helfrich, Frost and Lubick bring to the recruiting wars should enhance their results. New defensive line coach Ron Aiken, with 8 seasons at Iowa and six seasons and a Super bowl berth in the NFL, adds further credibility and experience.
A great school with an entertaining offense and a chance to win remain the strongest selling points. Oregon fans love their Ducks with an affection and loyalty that lasts a lifetime. The sustained noise in Autzen Stadium makes a powerful impression, if Helfrich and staff can just get them to come.
This could be a breakthrough season for Oregon football, provided they survive Will Lyles. Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas will again spearhead the nation's most entertaining offense. The offensive line, defensive line and secondary are deep. It's a fast team, steeped in Kelly's principles and work ethic, determined to prove it wasn't the coach alone that produced all those wins. Solid internal leadership from players like Brian Jackson, Avery Patterson and Hroniss Grasu should insure the commitment and focus on winning remains in place, even without Kelly's hard-driving example. Health is always the uncontrolled variable, but the Ducks have the opportunity to be very good for a fifth straight year. Success always opens doors, creating a synergy of its own.