When a new season of “Saturday Night Live” begins, everyone wants to know how the new cast will compare to the old one.
That’s the same question being asked around Oregon’s football program these days. Some prominent faces from last year’s cast are gone. Some new ones have taken their places. Now the curtain is coming up, and everyone is figuring out what to make of the new ensemble.
That new cast had a chance to audition in front of a crowd at Oregon’s “Saturday Night Live” camp. The event drew about 60 high school prospects and a few hundred fans to Autzen Stadium on Saturday, all of them there in one way or another because of the burgeoning excitement surrounding Oregon recruiting.
Mario Cristobal spent most of his time working with the offensive linemen. New strength coach Aaron Feld, just back from a week of lifting heavy objects while shirtless in Hawaii, ran around giving high fives. A handful of newcomers to Oregon’s roster, including Alabama transfer Dallas Warmack and recently signed safety Bryan Addison, mingled with fans and recruits.
Maybe it’s just me, but watching high school players run around in shorts and T-shirts isn’t going to get the pulse pounding. It’s not really my thing. But here’s the deal: They don’t do these camps for me, or you, or any of the people in the crowd. They do it for the players, including those who have already committed and others who might be on the verge.
All of the stuff Oregon is doing — the hashtags, the weight-room hype videos, the social media graphics — is aimed at a specific audience, primarily 16-to-18-year-old high school recruits who are considering the Ducks. And it seems to be working.
Oregon’s recruiting class is ranked No. 4 nationally by 247Sports. The Ducks have commitments from 12 four-star prospects; only Alabama, with 18, has more.
Several of those players, including running back Sean Dollars, cornerback Mykael Wright, safety Jeremiah Criddell and safety Trikweze Bridges, were on hand for Saturday’s camp. You didn’t have to be a scout or a recruiting analyst to know that Oregon’s future looks fast, athletic and entertaining as heck.
As the Ducks continue to reel in high-level prospects, it’s time to consider the possibility that Willie Taggart wasn’t as big a part of Oregon’s recruiting success as initially thought.
“Saturday Night Live” was Taggart’s thing, something he started last season to build some buzz for Oregon recruiting. It felt revolutionary at the time, mostly because no previous Oregon coach had tried to push the boundaries and draw attention to recruiting in such conspicuous ways.
You know the rest of the story. Taggart built a recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one time. Then he left for Florida State, and that recruiting class splintered. The Ducks still finished in the top 15 of most rankings, but it wasn’t quite the monster haul some fans were envisioning.
In the wake of Taggart’s departure, you wondered if the momentum surrounding Oregon recruiting was going with him. Taggart — and his right-hand man, David Kelly — got a lot of credit for modernizing Oregon’s recruiting approach and connecting with players who didn’t previously see Oregon as a viable fit. A lot of the brand was built around him: his personality, his catchphrases, his swagger.
So what’s happened since then? If anything, the Ducks have taken their recruiting to a higher level. They’ve done it with a more workmanlike approach, pounding the phones and flooding the zone with scholarship offers. Cristobal, though not as flashy as Taggart, has proven an effective salesman for Oregon’s future.
It’s only July, of course, and a lot can change before recruits sign letters of intent in December. One consequence of landing so many early commitments — the Ducks have 17, accounting for the bulk of their available scholarships — is that there’s more time for another school to swoop in and flip them.
We’ll see how many of the current commitments end up wearing an Oregon uniform, and how many others the Ducks can lure in the time remaining. Right now, Oregon is tracking toward the highest-rated class in school history, which is no small feat considering all the changes that have occurred.
Recruiting is only one part of running a successful program, but it’s a big part. If Cristobal can get that right, a lot of other things will fall into place.
We won’t know about the other stuff until the Ducks start playing real games in another month or so. But when you watch Oregon’s future running around in shorts and T-shirts, you can see that the Ducks are building something interesting.
The Ducks might have a new cast, but the show is only getting better.
Follow Austin Meek on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.