The February signing date, once a major milestone on the college football calendar, now feels like one of those obscure government holidays when the mail doesn’t come and you can’t remember why.
December is when the real action happens. Oregon’s 2019 class, the highest-rated in school history, was already signed, sealed and partially delivered by the time Mario Cristobal sat down Wednesday to discuss the final additions.
“You would think the second signing day is a little bit anticlimactic, but it’s not,” Cristobal said.
Well, OK. When you’re the head coach, it’s your job to be excited about recruiting. I get the impression Cristobal has been wearing a perma-smile since December, when the Ducks hauled in a loaded class that ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 7 nationally, according to 247Sports.
Wednesday was about filling in a few missing pieces. The Ducks signed three players, all from east of the Mississippi: safety Jamal Hill from Georgia, cornerback DJ James from Alabama and defensive tackle Kristian Williams from Memphis.
Those are three more thumbtacks to stick in the map depicting Oregon’s 2019 class. Most of Oregon’s signees come from the West — 12 from California, two from Hawaii, one each from Oregon, Washington and Colorado — but the Ducks also made some calculated incursions into SEC territory.
“Oregon remains an extremely powerful national brand,” Cristobal said. “That certainly gave us the opportunity to make some inroads, along with some networking and relationships in SEC country due to some years working over on that side of the world.”
I expect the Ducks to do more of that in the next few cycles. It’s rare for the state of Oregon to produce more than a handful of Pac-12-caliber prospects in a given year, and while the Ducks will continue to hammer California, they’ll also need to keep expanding their turf.
According to recent data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school football participation has dropped steadily in California over the past five years. Some of the steepest declines happened in the talent-rich areas of Southern California, where participation has dropped 12 to 14 percent since 2011.
Participation is declining in other West Coast states, too, though not as rapidly. The states bucking the national trend tend to be in the Southeast: Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, where participation is up 35 percent since 2011.
That should be troublesome news for Pac-12 schools already struggling to keep pace with their peers. The Pac-12 needs strong football in California, not just for USC and UCLA, but for Oregon, Washington and the Arizona schools as well.
The cycle compounds on itself as the geography of football shifts toward the Sunshine Belt. Schools from the SEC and ACC have access to more top-flight talent, which breeds more success and makes them more attractive to other top recruits.
As Pac-12 teams struggle, it becomes easier for schools from the South to swoop in and recruit blue-chippers on the West Coast. That’s what happened this season as the Pac-12 fought to hang on to the best prospects in its own footprint.
Of the top 25 players in California, 16 signed with Pac-12 schools. The rest went to places like Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson.
Compare that to the state of Texas, where 20 of the top 25 recruits signed with schools in the SEC or Big 12. Or to Florida, where 23 of the top 25 went to the ACC or SEC.
The difference is apparent when you compare Pac-12 teams side-by-side with contenders in other leagues. Those teams are bigger, stronger and deeper, especially up front.
“I think our conference needs to continue to add those big body types in the trenches to be able to withstand the rigors of the season,” Cristobal said.
Simply put, there aren’t enough massive human beings on the West Coast to satisfy the needs of every football team.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find them, as Oregon did by signing Penei Sewell from Utah or 375-pound Steven Jones from Temecula, Calif. But on the defensive line in particular, Cristobal said, it’s often necessary to look outside the Pac-12 footprint.
“The honest truth, the defensive tackles have been a little bit harder to find,” Cristobal said. “We treat that position like we would treat a quarterback, where we would go anywhere nationally or internationally.
“We almost went to Germany this year.”
The Ducks didn’t have to look that far to find Williams, a 297-pound defensive tackle from Memphis who’d originally committed to Minnesota. His signing was the finishing touch on a 2019 class that already ranked as one of the nation’s best.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the February signing date brings a lot of recruiting drama, it probably means your December didn’t go as planned. In that sense, this day was exactly what Oregon had in mind — low-key or, dare I say, boring.
Cristobal wouldn’t describe it that way, and that’s good. If Oregon wants to compete with Clemson, Alabama and the other college football superpowers, this class is only the start.
A boring signing day never seemed so exciting.