How Oregon built a national title contender without elite recruits
PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl had just finished torching USC's defense for three touchdowns on Oct. 30 when someone asked the Paradise, Calif., native how much interest USC had shown during the recruiting process.
None, Maehl replied. "Not even a letter."
In USC's defense, few other schools contacted Maehl. Maehl sent highlight tapes to Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State and Nevada. The Cougars showed interest, but never offered a scholarship. Neither did any of the others. Oregon assistant John Neal only knew of Maehl because he had played with Maehl's father, Steve, at Foothill (Calif.) Community College. Despite Maehl's low-profile, Oregon coaches knew they were watching a Pac-10 player -- though they originally thought he'd play defense -- when they popped in Maehl's highlight video. So they offered him a scholarship even though no one else did.
"I thought the recruiting services knew everybody," Oregon coach Chip Kelly cracked after the USC game. They certainly knew Darron Thomas. As a senior at Aldine (Texas) High, Thomas committed to LSU. He changed his mind when the Tigers also took commitments from quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and D.C. Jefferson for the class of 2008. Florida wanted Thomas to come compete with backups Cam Newton and John Brantley behind Tim Tebow. Thomas' list would have been much longer if he'd considered schools that didn't want to bring him in as a quarterback. Thomas picked Oregon, he said, because he loved the Ducks' fast-break offense. "It was just the offense and the tempo that I'd seen them running. And the points scored," Thomas said. "Everybody wants to score points."
Unlike most of the participants in past BCS title games, Oregon did not build its team with mostly four- and five-star recruits. The Ducks' major contributors either were unknowns unearthed by Oregon's coaching staff or recruits with a few BCS-conference options who were one physical shortcoming away from being sought by every school in the country. That mix has produced a two-time Pac-10 champion that will play for the national title Monday against Auburn.
Oregon occupies a unique place in the recruiting universe. It is in a BCS automatic qualifying conference, but until very recently it wasn't at the front of the minds of the best high school players in the conference's footprint. It does not sit in a recruiting hotbed; from 2004-09, the state of Oregon produced only 52 BCS-conference signees. On the plus side, Oregon enjoys the advantage of being the birthplace of Nike --
Winning has helped raise Oregon's profile. When former Ducks coach Mike Bellotti took over the program in 1995, the Ducks weren't nationally known. In some cases, they weren't regionally known. Bellotti remembers talking on the phone to a recruit in California. "He asked what time zone we were in," said Bellotti, who retired in 2009 and who now works as an analyst for ESPN. "I said, 'Same one you're in.'"
Thanks to the success of Bellotti and Kelly's teams, Oregon has been able to draw a few high-profile recruits. But for the most part, the Ducks have built a national title contender because of a staff that has an especially good eye for underappreciated players. And it is a staff-wide effort. One reason Oregon has had such success unearthing under-recruited players is a group-evaluation policy Bellotti instituted near the end of his tenure. The entire offensive and defensive staffs would assemble to watch players. "The defensive staff watched every defensive player. The offensive staff watched every offensive player," Bellotti said. "That way, everyone knew who everyone was recruiting, and we could compare the relative quality of players from different parts of the country."
Relationships with alums helped, too. A prime example is center Jordan Holmes. As a senior star for the Yuba City (Calif.) Honkers, Holmes nearly committed to Nevada -- the only school besides Sacramento State to have offered a scholarship at the time. Holmes' father had played at Oregon. So had Yuba City coach Brian Brown. Brown knew Holmes would honor any commitment he made, so he convinced his star to hold off on a commitment for a while so Brown could work on his alma mater. Brown called Oregon's coaches, telling them he had a diamond in the rough. One asked if Brown was just overly enamored of his player.
"I've been here 13 years," Brown replied. "How many phone calls have you gotten from me? None." Oregon coaches took a look, and current offensive line coach Steve Greatwood began recruiting Holmes in earnest. In November of his senior year, Holmes committed to Oregon. He's now the anchor of the Ducks' offense.
Oregon's willingness to jump on a player during his senior season gives the Ducks more flexibility than some of the more traditional powers. At Texas, for example, Mack Brown hands out most of the program's scholarship offers during a "junior day" shortly after National Signing Day. With an almost-full class in place nearly a year before signing day, there is precious little room to add a player who blooms as a senior. That may be one reason why the Longhorns -- who desperately needed a feature back this past season -- missed out on a gem from their own state. LaMichael James, who led the nation in rushing this season with 1,682 yards, had a dominant junior season at Liberty-Elyau High in Texarkana, Texas, but Liberty-Elyau coach Pat Brady said the interest didn't begin pouring in until just before James' senior season.
Though James has been portrayed as an unknown recruit plucked from obscurity, that isn't the case. Rivals.com gave him four stars, and TCU, Oklahoma State and Nebraska wanted him badly. "When [Bo] Pelini got to Nebraska, they jumped on him immediately," Brady said. Oklahoma assistant Josh Heupel passed through Texarkana that year and told Brady that the Sooners would love to take James, but they already had too many backs. (Demarco Murray, Chris Brown and Mossis Madu were on the roster, and the Sooners had an early commitment from five-star back Jermie Calhoun.)
In fact, James might have been a Cornhusker but for a meteorological snafu that even Pelini couldn't control. "He went up there and it was like six below zero," Brady said with a laugh. "That was it for Nebraska."
In the end, it came down to TCU and Oregon for James. James picked Oregon in large part because of the bond he formed with running backs coach Gary Campbell, a 26-year veteran of the Oregon staff who grew up in Ennis, Texas, and who spearheads the Ducks' recruiting efforts in that section of the Lone Star State. "What ended up happening," Brady said, "was he clicked with Campbell."
It shouldn't be surprising that the Ducks had to duel TCU for James. Check the college choices of Oregon's two-deep depth chart and the same schools keep popping up. Multiple times, the Ducks went head-to-head with TCU, Boise State and Utah, three schools that have built dominant programs without the benefit of blue-chip talent. Dan Hawkins tried to recruit linebacker Spencer Paysinger to Boise State before Hawkins left for Colorado. Defensive tackle Brandon Bair and cornerback Anthony Gildon each considered Boise State. Offensive tackle Mark Asper considered Utah, while freshman receiver Josh Huff considered Utah and TCU.
Though Oregon has had success with late-bloomers, Ducks coaches have been just as good at identifying talent early in the recruiting process. Rover Eddie Pleasant, who played for Oregon alum Garrett Sabol at Kennedy High in La Palma, Calif., jumped on his offer from Oregon the June before his senior year. "I wasn't a five-star recruit," he said. "It was an opportunity I had to jump on. ... They took a chance on me. I'm happy they took a chance on me."
The Ducks took another chance on cornerback Cliff Harris, but the questions had nothing to do with Harris' on-field ability. Oregon was one of the first schools to recruit Harris out of Edison High in Fresno, Calif., but the Ducks knew that wouldn't last. By the end of Harris' junior season, he was one of the nation's most sought-after defensive backs. USC offered. So did most of the rest of the Pac-10.
Several schools dropped off because of concerns that Harris might not qualify academically, but Oregon kept recruiting him. Oregon secured Harris' signature on a national letter of intent in February 2009, but the drama didn't end there. Harris was arrested two months later after he tried to insert himself into a scuffle between his brother and a police officer. (Harris later made a plea deal that allowed the misdemeanor charge of obstructing an officer to be wiped from his record after a year of good behavior.) "They still stuck with me through everything," Harris said of Oregon's coaches. "I had to show my loyalty to them." After a Pac-10 title and a trip to the BCS title game, the Ducks have found it a little easier to recruit high-rated players. For the class of 2011, 10 of Oregon's 20 commitments are from players with four-star rankings. Still, that number is awfully low for a program that should begin next season in the top 10. (For comparison, all but five of Alabama's 22 commitments have four- or five-star rankings.)
Even now, the Ducks find themselves grabbing players who might be missing one attribute that would make them five-stars. One of Oregon's top recruits in the class of 2011 is Tacoi Sumler, a receiver from Miami's Columbus High who is one of the nation's fastest players. But Sumler is only 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, so Miami, Florida and Florida State all ignored him. "They said I was too small," Sumler said. Now, Sumler wants to go to Eugene and prove his home-state schools wrong. "I'm going to try to prove that no matter what size you are, it's about speed," he said. "Speed kills."
Brown, the Oregon alum who coached diamond-in-the-rough Holmes in high school, believes a similar attitude permeates the Ducks' entire team. "They're making them into players," Brown said. "They mold them into their system. And those guys have something to prove, so they work that much harder."