Friday, February 9, 2018

February 09, 2018

It is a fascinating development over the last twenty or so years to monitor recruiting. What used to be a press release in February – with maybe some tidbits in local newspapers along with SuperPrep magazine – has become an industry to itself.

Along with the proliferation of recruiting information has come a different feeling at times among fans; it’s like reading all of the NFL pre-draft hype then hoping ‘your team’ gets who you think is the best. Except college football programs don’t entirely get to dictate who comes; there is no pre-set order of selection.

Recruiting is different. So too is the information that becomes available. The number of Football Bowl Subdivision programs competing for just a few elite athletes at each position makes the competition fierce; and part of that is the information we hear regarding recruits. There were a few ‘key recruits’ Oregon did not sign in this most recently completed recruiting cycle. Along with that has come plenty of misinformation.

These are some tidbits I picked up about each recruit along the way.

Miles Battle – There were reports that he was ‘close’ to committing on Thursday before signing day and that he backed out for various reasons. This is what the coaching staff believed, but there was more to the story than the Oregon side of this. On the night before he was set to commit, knowing reports were out there that he would commit to Oregon the next day, Ole Miss, who had set Battle as a top priority, sent in SIX coaches for his last in-home visit. It was during this visit that Battle began to think that Ole Miss might be the best place for him. They had been pursuing Tommy Bush and knew he was going elsewhere, so they went all in on Battle.

Oregon liked Battle and wanted him for this class; he was one of those to whom Mario Cristobal referred when talking about some players at the WR position that he did not get; but Battle and family were awed by the amount of coaches Ole Miss sent and really began to see him playing in Oxford that night.

Michael Ezeike – Another player who had once been committed to Oregon, the Ducks were one of the first elite programs to offer Ezeike as a wide receiver playing a flex type role rather than telling him they envisioned him as a tight end. He was raised in Los Angeles and there were only two teams that always topped his list. Oregon and UCLA. There were times others came in and joined the fray, but those were the two constants.

When Chip Kelly arrived at UCLA, he made an impressive pitch to Ezeike that resonated well with he and his family. When they sold him on the idea that he could play the same way other schools envisioned; he was in. He made a last trip to USC and enjoyed it, but there was really little here Oregon could have done differently. They put as much effort into getting him back into the fold as possible; he just liked what Kelly brought to UCLA. Early on in his recruitment, Ezeike called UCLA his ‘childhood dream school.’ Once Kelly gave him a better vision for his role with the Bruins, it was essentially over.

Devon Williams – Of course this is the one everyone wants to understand better. There is not much to understand here. But it is also where getting information from different sources can be tricky. The thought that Williams lied or played the Oregon coaches is plain silly. The young man and his mother went to the Las Vegas Bowl on their own dime rather than take an official visit. Yes, she lived in Vegas at the time, and yes it is a pretty easy trip over there, but they still chose that over official visits elsewhere.

The difficult thing about sources, sometimes they hear exactly right, but then someone changes their mind. This is what happened here. Anything else lobbed out there is simple frustration and bitterness.

On Sunday, when Williams went radio silent, just about everyone had been hearing the same thing; that Williams had made his decision and that it was Oregon. USC sources were saying that, Oregon sources were saying that, national reporters from all of the major services were saying the same thing; they believed and had heard Williams would be a Duck

At 2:40am PST Wednesday, the last I heard is that those close to him felt Oregon would be the choice. But when Williams made the late visit to USC, he just had a simple change of heart. He has had some tough circumstances in his life and moving nearly a thousand miles away started to weigh heavily on him. Yes, he had friends in Eugene, but when you’ve been moved around and never felt stable, it can be tough to make that move.

Look, it is easy to get enamored with any school; especially when there are friends there; but when that final day arrives, and you have to sign on the dotted line, sometimes the nomadic life is too much to overcome and you want to just feel some sort of peace in stability. Williams had a guardian in Lancaster that felt as if USC was the better place for him. That really hurt Oregon’s chances.
I know this, there was little more that this staff could have done to turn this in their favor (short of violating rules in such an obvious way as to lose him anyway). Prior to that visit to USC last weekend, earlier in the week, bleary-eyed and needing to get back to Eugene to host a final weekend of official visitors, Mario Cristobal and Michael Johnson spent the entire day with Williams. They made every effort to convince his guardian, mother and Devon that Oregon was the best fit.

Sometimes 17-year old’s change their minds at the last minute.

Willie Taggart Effect

I am going to make this non-premium because it is one of those things that really matters little now that he has left. When Taggart was hired in December 2016, some USF folks reached out to us to talk about the hire. Because we had never really had to cover an entire staff changing, it was crucial we start to understand him better and to see what he was all about as a coach.

As part of that, we got some negative feedback from those at South Florida. Now, much of it was the kind of stuff we pass off as ‘sour grapes’ after having gone through so much turmoil as a program; they did not want to be a stepping stone. Some of the stuff I was told really was just sour grapes. I was told that the only good hire he ever made was one that was ‘given’ to him by Jim Harbaugh.
Well, we know that is not true because he assembled one of the best overall coaching staffs in the entire nation. So, I took the rest of the criticisms lightly.

But one I never took lightly – and proved prophetic – was Taggart’s affinity for ‘stars.’ Not stars like Deion Sanders, but recruiting stars. He knows as well as anyone that results on the field matter and that some players are over-rated, but he absolutely wanted his name tied to the truly elite players he was recruiting. He did not put much effort into two and three-star players; he wanted players ranked four and five-stars. This is why he did not have the ‘layered’ approach to recruiting that Cristobal has put into place; he did not want other coaches to get credit for ‘his’ recruits.

Down the stretch, this really hurt Oregon for a lot of players. Very few remaining coaches had developed a strong enough relationship with those other players; and attempting to re-establish a relationship against the coach who was negative recruiting his former employer proved far more difficult than can be understood.

At the end of the crazy cycle, Oregon got much better at the offensive line (average size: 6-5, 332 pounds), brought in three really good linebackers (MJ Cunningham, Adrian Jackson and Andrew Johnson), two elite safeties (Steve Stephens and Jevon Holland), an elite corner (Verone McKinley III) an elite tight end (Spencer Webb), a critical piece of special team (Karsten Battles) an elite QB (Tyler Shough), two very good receivers (Isaah Crocker, Jalen Hall), another receiver (JJ Tucker) who saw his stock fall after missing most of his junior season due to injury; they improved the defensive line (Andrew Faoliu, Sione Vea Kava) and added additional depth at DB with JUCO product Hakai Woods and a late commitment from Kahlef Hailassie and two running backs with plenty of potential (Travis Dye, Jamal Elliott).

Could the class have been a bit better? Absolutely, but given the circumstances surrounding early signing day and the recent departure of a head coach who took a lot of players with him; this was really a pretty good day for the Oregon coaching staff.