Californians comprise about 25 percent of the University of Oregon’s undergraduate population, according to recent figures, second only to native Oregonians in state-by-state makeup.
Oregonians aren’t always sure how to feel about the California influx, which had led to tongue-in-cheek nicknames like “UC-Eugene” and “Cal State Oregon.” But when I look at the number of Californians enrolling at Oregon for 2019, I can think of two people in particular who should be feeling nervous today.
I’m talking to you, Clay Helton. And also to you, Chip Kelly.
Wednesday was the opening day of the early signing period in college football. Oregon signed 12 players from California, including four-star linebacker Mase Funa, four-star running back Sean Dollars, four-star cornerback Mykael Wright, four star wide receiver Mycah Pittman, four star defensive tackle Keyon Ware-Hudson and five-star pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the nation by ESPN.
In all, the Ducks signed six of the top 25 recruits in California as rated by 247Sports. As of Wednesday afternoon, USC and UCLA had combined to sign four.
That’s a pretty stunning statistic if you follow Oregon recruiting. With some exceptions — De’Anthony Thomas and Arik Armstead come to mind — Oregon rarely gets first choice of California prospects. More often, the Ducks are competing for the second tier or trying to hang on to a commitment once the L.A. schools get involved.
Last year the top four California recruits all signed with USC. The year before, four of the top six signed with the Bruins or Trojans. The year before that, USC, UCLA and Stanford got seven of the top 10.
This year, Oregon painted a big yellow “O” in the heart of L.A. The Ducks signed three players from powerhouse high school Mater Dei and reeled in Thibodeaux from Oaks Christian. They held off a late push from USC to sign Funa, purging memories of all those years when the Trojans would swoop in and flip an Oregon recruit at the last minute.
“All of us here feel the same way — it’s what Oregon should be year-in and year-out,” Cristobal said. “It finally happened.”
As we all know, Pac-12 football is in a precarious place. The league has missed the College Football Playoff three times in five years and lost nine of its last 10 bowl games. The Pac-12 is falling behind its peers in coaching salaries, in media revenue and in recruiting rankings, with only one Pac-12 school — No. 5 Oregon — ranked among the top 10 classes for 2019.
Those trends are a problem for the Pac-12, but they also represent an opportunity. Cristobal isn’t knocking heads with Georgia and Alabama every year on the recruiting trail. If he can establish Oregon as a destination for West Coast talent, he has a chance to fill the vacuum created by the struggles of other Pac-12 programs.
Helton is back at USC, but questions about his future aren’t going away. Kelly’s ambivalence toward recruiting has been well chronicled. Washington and Stanford take pride in being selective, which means they aren’t chasing a lot of the top West Coast players.
Oregon used to recruit that way, too, but the mentality has changed under Cristobal. According to 247Sports, the Ducks extended 335 scholarship offers for this recruiting cycle, by far the most in the Pac-12. Washington, UCLA and Stanford were the bottom three among all Power 5 schools.
The merits of those two approaches can be debated. Offering fewer players allows a program to zero in on the ones who fit best. The more players you offer, the more chances you have to land some difference-makers.
The Ducks appeared to land a bunch of those players in this year’s class. Cristobal still has to bring them together and prove he can maximize Oregon’s talent, something that didn’t always happen in his first season. But if the Ducks continue to recruit at this level, the Pac-12 is wide open for them to make a move.
“It’s something that we want to and need to get used to,” Cristobal said.
Score another win for UC-Eugene.