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  • Oregon football recruiting had seen a decline in recent years leading up to its 4–8 campaign in 2017, but new coach Willie Taggart has turned things around as he and his staff put together an elite 2018 class.
By Chris Johnson
October 06, 2017

When Oregon peaked under Chip Kelly in the early twenty-tens, the primary driver of its success was an innovative offensive scheme that left opponents gasping for air. The Ducks paired a field-stretching passing attack with a running game built on misdirection to put stress on opposing defenses. The players picked to run the scheme almost seemed incidental to its effectiveness. Kelly’s bountiful stint in Eugene hinged more on finding good system fits than procuring elite high school prospects; he had opposing coaches beat on the chalkboard.

A parade of offensive standouts made their way to Oregon during Kelly’s time there, most notably quarterback Marcus Mariota. But even the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner was a three-star prospect out of Saint Louis School in Honolulu whose only other scholarship offer before Oregon extended one reportedly came from American Athletic Conference program Memphis. Indeed, using the 247Sports composite database, the Ducks have never pulled in a class rated inside the top 10 nationally. Their high-water mark was 12th, which they hit in 2004, 2010 and 2011.

The Ducks are on track to climb much higher in this cycle. With 22 verbal commitments, including 12 four-stars, their 2018 class currently checks in at No. 5 in the nation, the highest rank in the Pac-12. Each of the four programs ranked ahead of Oregon (in order: Ohio State, Texas, Penn State and Miami) is a blueblood that has won multiple national championships. The Ducks have never brought home a title, and their longtime rival in the Pacific Northwest, Washington, feels on the verge of solidifying itself as a steady contender to make the College Football Playoff.

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If the Huskies’ dominance has stunted Oregon’s rise, it’s not showing much on the recruiting trail. First-year head coach Willie Taggart has convinced a crop of esteemed prospects to buy into a future in yellow and green despite the fact he’s only been in charge for five games. What’s more, none of Oregon’s 2018 verbals waited until Week 1 to make the call, so the Ducks have yet to reap tangible recruiting rewards from their on-field progress: After going 4–8 under Mark Helfrich last season, Oregon has opened 2017 4–1 in advance of Saturday’s clash with No. 11 Washington State at Autzen Stadium.

Oregon badly needed a talent upgrade, and Taggart has delivered. As SB Nation’s Bud Elliott detailed earlier this year, the Ducks suffered one of the largest three-year declines in his Blue-Chip Ratio, a measure of the portion of a team’s signees assessed four-star ratings or higher. Between 2014 and 2017, according to Elliott, Oregon’s BCR dipped from 41% to 28%. It also opened this season ranked 23rd in the 247Sports Composite team talent ratings, below four other Pac-12 teams: USC (third), UCLA (11th), Stanford (14th) and Arizona State (21st).

The Ducks won’t consistently get the better of the Trojans in recruiting battles. Unlike USC, they don’t have the luxury of inhabiting a city teeming with Power 5-caliber players. Nor can they tout a long and rich history of national title contention and development of future pros. But with Washington ascendant under Chris Petersen and David Shaw looking like he’ll keep Stanford in the 10-plus-win range for the foreseeable future, Oregon needs to accumulate more high-end prospects to reassert its position at the top of the Pac-12 North. Its 2018 class, provided Taggart is able to keep it together through National Signing Day, will undoubtedly help toward that end.

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In compiling this haul, Taggart and his staff have scored in the Pac-12’s most pivotal recruiting battleground, California. Six of the Ducks’ pledges hail from the Golden State, include their top-ranked pledge, four-star Edison High safety Steve Stephens, and another four-star at the same position, Bishop O’Dowd’s Jevon Holland. They’ve also notched a handful of in-state wins, pulling four-star offensive tackle Dawson Jaramillo out of Lake Oswego Senior High School and flipping Tigard four-star athlete Braden Lenzy from Notre Dame.

Florida ties have helped Oregon reach into one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country. It counts four class of 2018 commitments from the Sunshine State, one of whom, Wesley Chapel High four-star cornerback Isaiah Bolden, the Ducks flipped from local power Florida State. Taggart coached at South Florida for four seasons before taking the Ducks job, and one of his most celebrated assistant hires, co-offensive coordinator and run-game coordinator Mario Cristobal, served as Florida International’s head coach for six seasons before helping sustain Alabama’s flow of five-stars as a member of Nick Saban’s staff. 247Sports named him its National Recruiter of The Year in 2015.

The haul is heavy on skill-position players who could soar in Taggart’s spread offense, like Lenzy, (Fla.) four-star wide receiver Warren Thompson and four-star Garfield (Wash.) High athlete Tre’Shaun Harrison. Oregon could add to that group with in-state four-star wideout Chase Cota, who has the Ducks in his top seven, and five-star Antelope Valley (Calif.) High wide receiver Devon Williams, who named Oregon his leader in June. The Ducks also remain in the running for the nation’s top athlete and the state of Oregon’s No. 1 prospect, Crescent Valley High’s Talanoa Hufanga, although he projects as a safety in college.

Aside from the 4 to 6 weeks he’ll need to rehabilitate a broken collarbone, sophomore Justin Herbert should own Oregon’s starting quarterback job at least through the end of the end of the 2018 season. But the transfers of sophomore Travis Jonsen and redshirt freshman Terry Wilson this offseason leaves the Ducks thin at that position, even after they signed La Jolla Country Day (Calif.) High four-star Braxton Burmeister as part of their 2017 class. Taggart was forced to burn the true freshman’s redshirt in Oregon’s 45–24 win over Cal on Saturday after veteran backup Taylor Alie suffered a concussion.

That explains why Oregon is reportedly working to flip Newbury Park (Calif.) High four-star Cameron Rising from Texas. If the Ducks pull it off, it would mark the second flip of Rising’s recruitment; he jumped from Oklahoma to the Longhorns in April. However, Texas’s quarterback depth chart skews young, with true freshman Sam Ehlinger backing up true sophomore Shane Buechele, and the Longhorns also hold a commitment from another class of 2018 quarterback, Southmoore (Okla.) High four-star Casey Thompson. Several Ducks pledges seem to be pushing for the move, as they were posting the #RisingtoUO hashtag last month.

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Still, Oregon’s 2018 group should make it a huge signing day winner even if it can’t get Rising or a different, highly touted quarterback to hop on board. Taggart’s biggest challenge from here might be keeping his current commitments from looking elsewhere if Oregon takes a nosedive on the field, which seems more likely with Herbert on the mend. The Ducks won’t have to worry about that if Herbert’s replacement (possibly Burmeister) and the rest of the offense can keep putting up points in bunches and the defense makes progress under first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt.

One class won’t make up for a multi-year recruiting slump. Several top-10 or top-15 hauls may be required before the Ducks’ roster is ready to joust with the Pac-12’s best and compete for playoff berths. The 2018 group could be the foundation of the next great Oregon team. Taggart will need to keep building once it’s in place.

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