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Can Oregon catch USC in recruiting?

11/1/2012

Since 2000, the Pac-12 has been all Oregon and USC. Other schools have snuck in to share a conference crown, but only the Ducks and Trojans have won the title outright.

For most of the decade, the Trojans were the team to beat. Since Chip Kelly took over the Oregon head coaching job in 2009, the Ducks have been nearly unstoppable. The Ducks won the head-to-head battles on the field with USC in 2007, 2009 and 2010. USC topped the Ducks in 2008 and 2011.

The Ducks have begun to take over as the best program in the conference under Kelly's leadership. Passing USC on the field is one thing. Doing the same in recruiting, where USC has maintained its dominance in the face of NCAA sanctions, is a lot harder.

Oregon has become a national brand thanks to its on-field success and flashy uniforms. Its recruiting reach has spread far and wide. USC has always been a national brand due to its tradition, history, success and location. The Ducks have none of those things, so they have to make up for it in other areas.

Big recruiting wins in recent years have shown that Oregon has the ability to go toe to toe with the Trojans when it chooses to. As the Ducks look to continue their on-field dominance, they will also be working to recruit players who would usually go to USC.

De'Anthony Thomas (2011) and Arik Armstead (2012), California's top prospects the last two years, both signed with Oregon after being committed to USC for nearly a year.

Armstead's older brother, Armond, was a standout at USC before a medical issue -- one that caused the school's doctors to deny him from playing -- created a rift between the school and his family. Arik eventually opened up his recruitment and signed with the Ducks.

Oregon landing Thomas was the recruiting moment that changed the perception of the Ducks. While they had a solid decade on the field in the 2000s, they had yet to receive the kind of respect from recruits nationwide the traditional powers command.

Going into his freshman year at Los Angeles Crenshaw, Thomas told me his dream was to go to Oregon to run track and play football. It's a little-known fact that he always wanted to get out of Los Angeles and experience something new. By the time his senior year came around, "The Black Mamba" knew what he wanted. The problem was that everyone else had his future mapped out for him.

Thomas played running back and safety at Crenshaw and despite his desire to play offense in college, USC led him to believe they had him slotted to play cornerback. After the 2010 CIF-Los Angeles City Section championship game, Thomas told reporters he wanted to go to USC and win the Heisman Trophy as a running back.

Some people scoffed at the notion that the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder could be a college running back. They said his best route to the NFL was at cornerback. USC felt the same way, so he turned to the school he had previously dreamed of going to -- not the one others dreamed of for him.

"Oregon didn't even really recruit me after I committed to USC," Thomas said after signing. "They told me if I decommitted and showed them I was serious about looking around, they would have me come on a visit."

Oregon linebackers coach Don Pellum had been to Crenshaw a number of times. As Thomas put it, "DP never really pushed me on anything. He said hello and asked how I was doing," Thomas said. "He seemed more interested in some of my teammates."

Ultimately, Oregon's low-key approach and willingness to let Thomas play offense made Eugene the place for him. Once he spoke with his coaches and some close friends, he knew getting out of Los Angeles was the best thing for him.

"Once I let the people around me know what my feelings were, that's when I knew I had to take a trip up there," Thomas said. "The second I arrived in Eugene, they made me feel like a part of the family. I wasn't anyone special. Once I watched some game film and saw what I might be able to do, I knew Oregon was where I was meant to be."

The end result was a shock to anyone who followed recruiting. What many called the biggest recruiting coup in history ended up being the best decision of Thomas' life. His success on the field has proven that offense is where he was meant to be. Oregon was willing to be patient and knew it offered the best situation for Thomas.

The same year, USC made a big push for Under Armour All-American offensive lineman Andre Yruretagoyena. He had already given a verbal commitment to the Ducks, and Oregon was able to hold off the Trojans.

A year later, USC offered U.S. Army All-American running back and Oregon commit Byron Marshall. The Trojans needed a running back, and Marshall was the best on the West Coast. Much like Yruretagoyena, Marshall stuck with Oregon and turned down the Trojans.

There have been other elite recruits like Ricky Heimuli, Tyler Johnstone, Cliff Harris and Colt Lyerla who chose the Ducks over the Trojans. Lyerla was an in-state recruit who had the top programs in the country pursuing him. In the end, he chose the Ducks because he believed they would maximize his talent.

It's tough to see what the future might hold for the Ducks and the Trojans. As USC moves past NCAA sanctions, it maintains its status as a recruiting power. The Trojans currently have the No. 1 class, so they're not going away, regardless of Oregon's on-field success.

Either way, the Ducks are no longer lagging behind in recruiting. Just like they do on the field, they're just doing it at their own pace.