Brenden Schooler has already been a starter on both sides of the ball at Oregon and was voted the special teams player of the year by his teammates.
But it was only 22 months ago that the versatile 6-foot-2, 192-pound junior was still waiting by the phone for a Pac-12 program to call.
With only one FBS scholarship offer, from Wyoming, Schooler was thinking about attending junior college. Then former Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal dialed up the standout football player and track athlete from Dana Point, Calif., with a late offer to join the Ducks.
Schooler committed to Oregon in June 2016 and enrolled a few days later. As a true freshman in 2016, he started 10 games at free safety, leading the team with four interceptions and finishing with 74 tackles.
A year ago coach, Willie Taggart had Schooler run a route during a spring practice. Oregon’s one-and-done coach liked what he saw and asked Schooler to make the switch to wide receiver in 2017.
The position switch is starting to look like a smart move.
During last Saturday’s scrimmage in Portland, Schooler had a breakout performance, catching three Justin Herbert passes for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was reassuring,” Schooler said. “The practices before that I wasn’t scoring a lot of touchdowns, wasn’t catching a lot of balls, which is fine. You’re not going to catch five balls every practice or score touchdowns every practice.
“But it was reassuring that I still have it in me and can go up and get the ball when it’s thrown to me.”
Schooler finished with 20 receptions for 274 yards and three touchdowns last season. His 24-yard touchdown against Boise State was one of the few offensive highlights for the Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl loss.
New coach Mario Cristobal is counting on more big plays from Schooler in the fall with the graduation of another two-way talent, Charles Nelson, and a glaring lack of depth at receiver behind the returning starters.
On the final play of the scrimmage, Schooler beat double coverage and grabbed a perfectly thrown pass by Herbert for a score.
“There is transition that goes with that. That is not easy. A lot of respect and love for him,” Cristobal said of Schooler’s move from defense to offense. “He was one of the top performers in Saturday’s scrimmage. That last catch he had right there, I tell you what, that set the tone for some things to come with him.”
The wide receiver room has been thinned out with sophomore Darrian McNeal leaving the program this spring, true freshman Jalen Hall returning home after one practice and junior Malik Lovette rehabbing an injury.
Herbert doesn’t have a lot of receivers to throw to, but the junior quarterback has developed a strong rapport with his four primary targets — Schooler, Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson and Jaylon Redd.
“Schooler has always been a reliable guy. Even last year he was a guy that I didn’t think he got the ball as much as he needed to,” Herbert said. “Him and Dillon and Johnny, those guys are athletic, so they’ve been able to make plays regardless of the position they’ve been in. All spring they’ve been real productive guys. …
“It’s tough going from DB to receiver and not knowing what you’re doing. Just having time under his belt, learning the plays, getting used to it has been super helpful for him.”
Herbert also connected with Redd for a late touchdown in the bowl game and again during a fourth-and-goal situation in the scrimmage against Jim Leavitt’s starting defense.
“Jaylon has come a long way,” Johnson, who started 10 games last season as a true freshman, said of his speedy classmate. “He’s put a lot of work in the offseason and it’s showing on the field.”
Mitchell led the Ducks last season with 517 yards and four touchdowns. Johnson, who had 299 yards and a touchdown in his first season at Oregon, finished with three catches for 95 yards in the scrimmage.
“The chemistry has gotten a lot better from last year. We’re getting more reps together and it’s just moving a lot smoother,” Johnson said. “It’s great because (Herbert) can throw you open even if you’re not all the way open. The chemistry on the field is just unspoken.”
One of the more impressive pass plays during the scrimmage was one that didn’t count. Schooler caught another deep pass in the end zone, but Herbert was ruled to have been sacked on the play, even though the defense wasn’t allowed to tackle quarterbacks.
“I’ve been working with (Schooler) for over a year now, so I was expecting that,” Johnson said. “He does that stuff every day.”
Oregon will conduct its 10th spring practice Thursday. The annual spring game is April 21 at Autzen Stadium (2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).