Oregon's trail of recent success has run through Southern California

Oregon's trail of recent success has run through Southern California
Oregon running back Royce Freeman carries the ball during the Ducks' win over Florida State in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. Freeman is one of several Oregon players who hail from Southern California. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It was more than a photo; it was a greenly veiled threat that is continually directed from the calm of the Pacific Northwest to the chaos of Southern California.

In the winter of 2011, just days before he was scheduled to sign with USC, a photo appeared on the Internet of nationally renowned Crenshaw High running back De'Anthony Thomas decked out completely in Oregon gear.

At the last moment, instead of going to school 10 minutes from home, he decided to attend school 14 hours from home, shocking the Trojans, shaking up the college football world, and continuing a theme that is repeated today.

"L.A. is crazy,'' said Oregon center and Crespi High graduate Hroniss Grasu. "Eugene, it's different.''


What's not crazy is that Oregon has capitalized on those differences to stock up on Southern California stars in hopes of roaring past USC and UCLA, and it's working. In Monday's College Football Playoff national championship game against Ohio State, the Ducks will use at least seven impact players from Southern California in hopes of winning the Pac-12's first national title in 10 years.


"When we were down there for the Rose Bowl, it was like a homecoming for half the team,'' said linebacker Joe Walker of Palos Verdes High and L.A. Harbor College.


Walker was the team's third-leading tackler during the regular season. Derrick Malone, a linebacker from Colton, ranked second in tackles. They are joined in Oregon's linebacker group by Colton's Rodney Hardrick and Rancho Cucamonga's Tony Washington, who prepped at Los Osos High.

"I was a huge UCLA fan growing up, but neither UCLA or USC ever made me an offer, and I'm glad it worked out like it did,'' said Washington, who starred in the Rose Bowl semifinal with a 58-yard touchdown return of the blooper fumble by Florida State's Jameis Winston.

Then there's highly recruited freshman safety Tyree Robinson, who chose Oregon over USC even though he attended San Diego's Lincoln High, former home of Trojan Marcus Allen.

"I liked USC growing up, watching Reggie Bush, talking to Marcus Allen, everybody was pushing me toward that way," said Robinson. "But I wanted to be different, start my own trend, be my own self."

The Southern California kids also have impact on offense. Grasu is Oregon's stalwart center. Cameron Hunt from Corona Centennial is a powerful guard. Royce Freeman, their star running back, is from the deep Southern California town of Imperial.

"Both USC and UCLA put me off to the side; one of those school's coaches told me he would call me 'tomorrow' and didn't call me for three months,'' said Hunt. "But Oregon came in there and trusted me the whole time."

These and other Southern California kids have not only helped propel Oregon to national prominence but also, fittingly, annoyingly, have helped the Ducks dominate Southern California teams on the field.

Since Chip Kelly became the Oregon coach in 2009, the Ducks are 8-1 against USC and UCLA, outscoring them, 414-239, during that time. Although Steve Sarkisian has yet to coach a USC team against the Ducks, Jim Mora has coached two Bruins teams against Oregon and been beaten both times by a combined 40 points.

"Really, I don't see why anybody in Southern California wouldn't want to go to Oregon,'' said Walker.

With so many great high school players in Southern California, it is no surprise or shame that some of the best ones end up elsewhere. And, granted, Oregon's speed-and-technique scheme requires the sort of athlete that might be too small for the giants typically sought by the locals.

But, still, the reasons for the defections, as first highlighted in the Thomas signing, are worth noting as the locals try to figure out how to change the narrative. With its Nike sponsorship, fancy uniforms, extravagant facilities, and speedy style, Oregon is considered the coolest of schools, and its rural atmosphere is a perfect getaway for Los Angeles players weary of the traffic and clutter. But the players say it's about much more.

"It's about the entire culture,'' said Washington. "Guys can just feel it. It's a bond we have, a family environment, guys want to be part of that.''

Thomas, who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, never completely explained his sudden change of heart, although a major factor was that the Trojans had not renewed the contract of running backs coach Todd McNair, who was Thomas' closest contact on the team. Thomas became vulnerable to a lack of stability that has plagued the coaching staffs of both USC and UCLA in recent seasons. Oregon, meanwhile, has a staff so entrenched that the biographies in the postseason media guide are of the coaches, not the players.

Six coaches have been there at least a dozen years. No current coach at either USC or UCLA has that much tenure. Oregon coaches mostly live within a couple of miles of campus. The players all live within a few blocks of one another. The school is the main sports focus of not just the city, but the entire state. The players say it adds up to a feeling of family that is harder to find in a big-city school.

"If you wanna look around, it's a pretty safe bet that the guy recruiting you is gonna be there when you finish,'' said Steve Greatwood, offensive line coach in his 28th season at Oregon after an earlier stint at USC. "We're around, we're accessible, we can have the kids over the house for a barbecue, it's easier than other places.''

The players notice things like that. They talk about feeling it the moment they step off the plane in Eugene.

"Coach Greatwood is like a second father to me; the family atmosphere there is so unique, I don't think you can find that just anywhere,'' said Hunt.

There was a time when most prominent defections between Oregon and Southern California went the other direction. Legendary USC coach John McKay was actually an Oregon running back in 1948-49 and still holds the school's career record at 6.1 yards per carry. Even as recently as a decade ago, Greatwood remembers that if USC or UCLA were going after a player, Oregon didn't stand a chance.

"You put in a token effort, but you realized you weren't going to be in the mix with that kid,'' Greatwood said.

Now, the Ducks seemingly have their choice of athletes. And they increasingly, smartly choose Southern California while blazing a different sort of path.

Call it the Trail Oregon.