Are The Ducks Going Through A Recruiting Crisis?

I was bummed when Tahj Boyd selected Clemson. He could have been a great fit as a QB in Oregon's spread offense. I was disappointed when Bryce Brown picked Tennessee, and a little put off by his stating that Oregon couldn't prep him for the NFL like UT. I wasn't expecting Aaron Plugrad to leave the program, but it made sense. I wasn't at all surprised when Chris Harper left, but still, it hurt a little. I was surprised when Justin Roper bailed.

Then, this past weekend...

I didn't see Oklahoma coming in the recruitment of running back Brennan Clay. Especially after Clay just weeks ago was proclaiming Oregon to be "...kind of my dream school." I'll admit I was a bit shocked when I then read that running back Ethan Grant publicly stated he was re-opening his recruitment after having committed to the Ducks earlier in the year.

It all has me pondering one question:  Do the Oregon Ducks have a recruiting crisis?

Yes, I believe they do. Sort of.

I'll explain after the jump.

Why worry?

I get the sense the Ducks are falling behind in the race and I don't think we know yet whether Chip Kelly and his new-look staff have the late kick of an Oregon distance runner.

Yes, I realize that no player is a lock until he shows up in the locker room, puts on his high-tech cooling pads and rapid-dry jersey and takes the field. Yes, I may be overreacting. Our Ducks need solid running back recruits this year. One just walked away from his dream school and the other is suddenly up in the air. The competition for top talent out west is heating up and the Ducks appear to be having a tough time sealing the deal.

If you put Ethan Grant's commitment on ice for the time being, the Ducks have two verbals here in early June - local 4-star talent Curtis White and 3-star cornerback Terrance Mitchell from Sacramento.

Compare that to a couple otherwise mediocre-to-bad Pac-10 performers from 2008. Stanford has 16 verbals, and they're not just a bunch of smart 2-star guys. Coach Harbaugh has landed a couple 4-stars and a slew of 3-star players from all across the country. Washington is having a great recruiting season. The Dawgs now have nine verbals including yesterday's announcement by 4-star QB Nick Montana. Unlike Stanford, the best talent UW is landing is mostly local. Steve Sarkisian clearly is protecting the Seattle area from getting pilfered by Oregon and Oregon State. The University of Mother Earth at Berkeley (a.k.a. Cal) also is taking care of business with six verbals, including 4-star players from both Colorado and Texas.

Brand erosion for Oregon football?

So what exactly is Oregon's problem? I'm looking squarely at circumstances that have enabled a lot of potential anti-Duck propaganda. Circumstances from 2007 and 2008 are now question marks in 2009.

A few stars have fallen to injury the past couple years - Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Johnson in ‘07, Roper early last year, Jeremiah Masoli against Boise State. The team, despite all the talent in 2007 and 2008, was unable to avoid three or four losses. LaGarrette Blount put up poor stats against quality linebacker units at USC and Cal. The top position coach in the nation tried to leave Oregon after the '08 season, but came in second place for a head coaching position and ended up hanging around. A couple other coaches were dismissed and replaced with new faces. The venerable Mike Bellotti announced he would leave sometime after the 2008 season, then stepped away and handed the whistle to a guy who has yet to prove himself as a head coach. Three reasonably high-profile players exit the program within a couple weeks following spring ball.

Those are circumstances, and not pretty ones.

We of green and yellow blood have faith. You and I believe in Chip Kelly and his new coaching additions. We understand that the Ducks lost second string guys and have depth and talent at those positions. We understand that one lost recruit just opens the door for another talented player.

The circumstances, however, raise questions. Those questions are easily manipulated into doubt. And I have no doubt those questions are being raised repeatedly by powerful coaches who covet many of the same talented players Oregon is recruiting. The Lane Kiffins and Bob Stoops of the world must be hammering away at Oregon's credibility as they pitch their programs as better options to talented young men who are likely swimming in the attention and overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

That, my ATQ friends, is the "sort of" to the answer to my own question.

This crisis, in my opinion, isn't a matter of Oregon lacking a good product to sell. It is the result of Oregon's top competition having easy targets when it comes to Oregon's identity. In marketing we might refer to Oregon's crisis as an issue of brand erosion.

Oh, the stories they must tell.

"Their QBs all get hurt." "They've only played in one BCS game since 2001." "They'll never win a conference championship because USC has overwhelming talent." " Their spread offense doesn't translate into developing an NFL-worthy profile." "Their coaching staff is unproven." "Some of their best players are leaving so the new coaches must be difficult to play for."

Imagine that you're an 18-year-old with potential million dollar talent. You're hearing all that rhetoric from guys named Stoops, Kiffin, Sarkisian, Neuheisel, Tedford, Miles, Brown, Meyer, Saban, Tressel, Leach, Gundy, Erickson, Riley and many of their esteemed assistants. Are you not buying into those messages and basing your verbal commitment on the appearance of a more stable and nurturing program?

I believe that's exactly what's going on. The vulnerability door is open and Oregon's big-time competition is running through it full speed.

Am I crazy? Maybe.

Just to check, I bounced some thoughts off Chris Fetters, who covers college football recruiting in the Pacific NW for Scout.com. Chris gave me the encouraging notion that we're just seeing a natural process play out.

"To be honest, whenever there is regime change, there's going to be change in how things are done, who the new staff likes, and how that affects not only the current players on staff, but also the ones that were being recruited by the previous staff, but are now possibly looking at a different set of issues.  That's what you're seeing right now." He added, "Is it pretty?  No. But I think [Chip] Kelly has been very smart about reporting on the players that are leaving now, simply because by the time fall camp starts, that will no longer be the story."

Since Chris covers the Northwest closely, I asked him what he was hearing about Chip Kelly the new head coach, relative to recruiting. Chris had this response: "To be honest, coming from my neck of the woods - which is the NW - Kelly's recruiting hasn't been all that different from Mike Bellotti's. They target their in-state guys and whatnot, but Oregon's recent success has had as much to do with how they've recruited from afar as it has from recruiting in-state.  So it doesn't surprise me at all that Kelly is recruiting nationally, and recruiting for very specific needs. His offense is highly powerful and sophisticated, and it needs the right body types to run at a high idle."

We probably agree, Chris has a pragmatic view of what's going on. I get it. The Ducks are swinging for some top shelf players that might help Chip score 56 points a game, and they're going to whiff on a few curveballs. Still, natural process or not, I can't help thinking that Oregon this year might struggle to win battles over high-profile recruits. It's my theory and I'm sticking to it. Slippage in recruiting, while conference rivals are beginning to excel, troubles me.

Is there a fix? Absolutely!

Of course, there is a way to stop the slippage (that's a great word, slippage, which I confess, I am stealing from author Stephen King).

If Oregon can't land many of their top targets this year, the coaches need to be ultra-savvy and find some gems among the cast-offs of other top-20 programs. They need to continue mining the JC ranks for guys who fit the Oregon scheme and can play or add depth immediately.

Then the Ducks simply need to win. They need to beat Boise State on the road, and Utah and Cal at home this coming season. Beating USC in Eugene again in 2009 would be huge. The Ducks need to make a Michigan-sized statement at Tennessee next year, and then generate a surge of momentum as the program transitions from the Masolian period to the Thomasonian period.

Win. Send players to the NFL in fair numbers. Earn a BCS bowl bid in the next two years. Beat a quality SEC team on the road. Give USC hell. Do all of that and simply prove all of the anti-Oregon arguments to be empty, hollow. Change the circumstances. It's a tall, tall order.

I feel uneasy looking at the recruiting notes and seeing Oregon with two verbals and Stanford with 16. I know it's early, but on my compass, that needle is pointing south. Time will tell how Chip Kelly's first recruiting season as head coach turns out for the short term.

If a recruiting turnaround happens this Fall and Oregon can continue to win nine, 10 or more games a year, the long term prospects will take care of themselves. Win and great recruits will come to Eugene, just like they do in Norman and Lincoln and Columbus and Tuscaloosa.

Then maybe, just maybe, I can stop sweating college football in the middle of June.

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