EUGENE, Ore. — For years, Braxton Burmeister dreamed of playing college football at the University of Oregon. A four-star prospect and the 20th-ranked passer in the country, according to Scout.com, the 6-foot, 211-pound quarterback says he was in middle school when he fell for the Ducks.
Oregon, with its glitzy facilities, flashy uniform combinations and breakneck offensive speed, mesmerized high school players across the country, including Burmeister. But when recruiting picked up for the La Jolla Country Day (Calif.) School superstar, Oregon was nowhere to be found.
“I definitely wanted to hear from them,” says Burmeister, who threw for 4,461 yards and 53 touchdowns and ran for an additional 1,470 yards and 27 touchdowns during his senior season. “But I never did.”
So Burmeister committed to Arizona in May 2016, a decision that made him the star of the Wildcats’ 2017 class. He was expected to enroll in January, ascend the depth chart during spring work outs and immediately help pull the program out of the depths of the Pac-12 South Division.
But then Oregon fired Mark Helfrich in early December and hired Willie Taggart from South Florida, and the Ducks changed their approach. Prospects committed to other schools became fair game. That was a tactic that Helfrich, and Chip Kelly before him, frowned upon, according to Brandon Huffman, Scout.com’s national director of recruiting. Within a month of Taggart’s hiring, the Ducks had flipped the dual-threat Burmeister from Arizona.
“Taggart made it clear to me that in his first recruiting class, I was the quarterback he wanted,” Burmeister says. “That’s something special. A new coach comes in and he went out of his way to reach out to me. And the tradition they have there, everything about the place is just awesome.”
That seems true, despite Oregon’s disastrous 2016 season that involved the Ducks missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004. Taggart told SI.com there’s been no shortage of interest from prospects in Oregon, even with the program reeling from a brutal season. He says it’s been “appealing … you call recruits and hear kids say, ‘Oregon is my dream school, Coach.’ Wow! That’s the guy I want to talk to.”
Burmeister fits that description. Just two years ago, the Ducks were flying high with Helfrich in charge. They were led by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who took Oregon all the way to the national championship game, where the Ducks lost to Ohio State. But the two years since Mariota’s departure have been marred by on-field meltdowns and off-field snafus, culminating in a 4-8 season in December. Athletic director Rob Mullens hired Taggart to change the culture. Taggart, a master rebuilder, has said this project is unique, in some ways different yet in other ways similar to his previous coaching jobs.
As always, it starts with recruiting. The Ducks have been focused this cycle on stockpiling receivers and tight ends and upgrading the talent at defensive line and in the secondary. Taggart has assembled a staff packed with savvy recruiters, many of whom are familiar with the West Coast, a necessity for a coach coming from Florida. Oregon also is expected to cast a wider net in the South thanks to Taggart’s recruiting connections in that region, a boon for a school that largely subsists on California talent. The first prospect to commit to the Ducks under Taggart was another Arizona pledge, Darrian McNeal, an athlete from Seffner, Fla.
Taggart’s first directive to the staff was to do deep dives on all the current commits. He wanted evaluations of how they’d fit in Oregon’s new system. He wanted everyone checked out, on and off the field. No surprises, he said, and no losing commitments. One of Taggart’s hires was secondary coach Keith Heyward, who came from Louisville but had previous stops at USC, Washington and Oregon State (his alma mater). Heyward hit the recruiting trail in California, familiar territory for him, with instructions from Taggart to be aggressive.
“Coach’s energy fills a room immediately,” said Heyward, adding that he feeds of that enthusiasm. “He did not directly address recruiting committed kids but I know this, nobody’s every stopped talking to our commits! If you want a kid, you have to go get him. He’s not going to another school until he faxes in the letter of intent, so we’re gonna stay on him until we have to get off the phone.”
The new approach, Huffman says, is paying off. A new staff means everyone has a fair shot at playing time, including recruits, which can work to a program’s advantage. Hence his recruitment of Burmeister despite the fact that Oregon will return sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2016, with just four interceptions.
Taggart shows no signs of letting up, either. The Oregon staff went on a state-wide recruiting blitz last week—one local outlet reported it as a “storm tour”—sitting down with dozens of high school coaches in the Beaver State. Before Taggart’s hiring, critics had lamented the Ducks’ propensity to let top local recruits get away. In this cycle, for example, West Linn defensive back Elijah Molden is headed to Washington, and Central defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, the state’s top-ranked player, recently flipped from the Huskies to USC.
This staff intends to halt the exodus of in-state talent. Offering players earlier could help. Huffman says the Ducks are “recruiting the 2018 guys feverishly,” extending offers to juniors, whereas Kelly, Helfrich and their staffs typically waited until the summer before a prospect’s senior year, and possibly later. Taggart’s strong commitment to recruiting is clear. At the Oregon-Oregon State basketball game in Eugene Jan. 14, he told the Pac-12 Network that, “recruiting is like brushing your teeth and combing your hair: The second you stop, you start to look bad.”
Still, a pair of off-field incidents (one involving off-season workouts, the other the dismissal of an assistant coach after a DUII arrest) could hamper Oregon’s recruiting efforts. It’s difficult to say how these distractions will impact the 2017 class. Burmeister, for his part, said he had discussed the incidents with his parents but reiterated that he is “completely committed” to Taggart and has no concerns. He will be on campus this week for his visit.
Currently, the Ducks’ 2017 recruiting haul ranks 31st nationally, behind Pac-12 foes USC (No. 12), UCLA (15), Washington (20) and Stanford (28), according to Scout.com. But they’re in they’re still in the mix for Deommodore Lenoir, a four-star defensive back from Bishop Mora Salesian High in Los Angeles. The No. 7 player at his position, according to Scout.com, Lenoir would be the crown jewel of this class if he chooses Oregon. Despite recent recruiting misses and a steep decline on the field, Huffman says the Ducks still have plenty of cache. And with or without Lenoir, Oregon should be just fine in this recruiting cycle and beyond.
“When Oregon got De’Anthony Thomas, that was the single biggest turning point for them,” says Huffman, referring to the former All-American and Los Angeles native who flipped from USC to Oregon on National Signing Day in 2011. “That put them at the big boys table. That proved they could get elite players in the backyards of national powerhouses.
“If any program can overcome a blow on the radar it’s Oregon, because it’s still the school that Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas went to. Kids are still gonna be intrigued by Oregon; it’s not like they fell of the map completely. I think 2016 humbled them a little bit, but they’ve got a guy in Taggart who’s willing to put in the work. Remember, Taggart comes from the Harbaugh school of coaching and recruiting—he knows you don’t just sit back and wait for kids to show up. You’ve gotta go get them.”