- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
The most-used mantra when it came to Oregon recruiting during its ascent to the top of the Pac-12 conference was that the Ducks did a phenomenal job of finding the hidden-gem recruits who could fit into Oregon's unique system on offense and defense.
Now, that thought might be one of the conference's most inaccurate.
That doesn't mean the Oregon coaches still aren't capable of finding the Ducks' customary hidden gems; it simply means that with Oregon's success on the field, the Ducks have turned into bullies on the recruiting trail, capable of grabbing commitments from any number of ESPN 300 prospects and pulling prospects away from fellow recruiting powers.
The Ducks' recruiting success has been building over much of the past decade, but going back to where much of the foundation was laid for the Ducks' three-year run atop the conference -- winning conference championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011 -- Oregon signed just three ESPN 150 recruits in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes. The 2007 class was considered a tremendous success at the time, but there were far more recruits during those years who made the transition from no-name to household-name players during their years at Oregon. Between Mark Asper, Terrell Turner, Jeff Maehl, Eddie Pleasant, Talmadge Jackson, Jeremiah Masoli, Kenjon Barner, Kiko Alonso, Lavasier Tuinei, Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson, the Ducks found plenty of under-recruited or completely passed-over talent who turned into stars.
But after grabbing three ESPN 150 prospects in a four year span from 2006-09, Oregon landed four such recruits in the 2010 class alone -- including cornerback Dior Mathis, whom the Ducks wrestled away from Florida, Florida State, Miami, Michigan and Tennessee, all of which had offered. Of course, that 2010 group also included the usual "sleepers," including Hroniss Grasu and Terrance Mitchell, who turned into impact players.
The 2011 class offered another bump in recruiting, with five ESPN 150 prospects. All five came after fierce recruiting battles with national powers, and that class -- featuring nine four-star prospects -- was a sign that Oregon had truly arrived as a big player on the recruiting scene. Of course, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 2010 class for the Ducks and their fans is that the class contained Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas.
Mariota was a perfect example of Oregon coaches going out and finding a recruit who would perfectly fit the system, offering and getting a commitment before virtually any other program realized what Mariota could be -- perhaps an example of the system making a recruit, since we have no idea of what Mariota would have done in a different program.
Thomas, however, might be one of the first Oregon recruits who changed the game for the Ducks, where it's not the system turning a two-star prospect into an NFL prospect. Thomas was one who made it acceptable for a big-time recruit to begin thinking about what he could do in said system.
That's not to say Oregon didn't get important recruits before Thomas, but the lightning-quick back might have served as the tipping point where the recent practice of recruiting gems to Oregon became less about searching through a mine and more about selecting at the counter.
In the following class, Oregon flexed its muscle by signing defensive end Arik Armstead, who decommitted from USC, tight end Pharaoh Brown, who decommitted from Michigan, wide receiver Bralon Addison, who decommitted from Oklahoma State, Dwayne Stanford -- an Ohio prospect with Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State offers -- quarterback Jake Rodriguez after a hard, late push from USC, defensive end DeForest Buckner, tight end Evan Baylis and safety Reggie Daniels -- all of whom had impressive national offer sheets.
In the 2013 class, Oregon again simply went out and dominated on the trail, grabbing five ESPN 300 recruits and winning impressive national battles for Danny Mattingly, Darren Carrington, Tyrell and Tyree Robinson, Juwaan Williams, Devon Allen and flipping Cameron Hunt and Torrodney Prevot from Cal and USC, respectively.
That success is continuing in 2014. ESPN 300 backs Royce Freeman (Imperial, Calif./Imperial) and Tony James (Gainesville, Fla./Gainesville) are early commitments to Oregon, and that has nothing to do with the Ducks coaches searching high and low for sleeper recruits who fit the system. Those commitments are absolutely about Oregon going into Southern California and Florida and wrestling away two of the top tailback talents in the country. Freeman holds offers from Alabama, Florida State, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Wisconsin, while James has them from Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami and Ohio State.
Cornerback commit Arrion Springs (San Antonio/Theodore Roosevelt) is the No. 30 recruit in the country and the Ducks are going to swing hard for ESPN 300 prospects Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra), John "JuJu" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly), Solomon Thomas (Coppell, Tex./Coppell), Bishard "Budda" Baker (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue), Mattrell McGraw (New Orleans/John Curtis), Bryce Dixon (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure), Qualen Cunningham (Chandler, Ariz./Hamilton) and Montae Nicholson (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway).
While it will always be about finding the right recruit who fits the system for the Oregon coaches, the success of said system -- on both sides of the ball -- continues to open the door for the Ducks to a new batch of high-profile recruits every year. And while the Pac-12 seems to be improving up and down the conference, this obvious success on the recruiting trail could have Oregon situated toward the top of the standings for a considerable time.