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Oregon’s recruiting success in Southland comes at expense of USC, UCLA

Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux celebrates after a win over the Washington Huskies on Oct. 19.
Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux celebrates after a win over the Washington Huskies on Oct. 19. Thibodeaux, one of the top recruits in the nation, chose not to continue his football career in Southern California.
(Getty Images)

Oregon’s trip to the Coliseum to play USC on Saturday will be a homecoming for many. The No. 7-ranked Ducks have 46 players on their roster from California. They have 19 from Oregon.

The talent-rich Southland and Bay Area have long been popular recruiting destinations for the Ducks, but never have they had as much success recruiting the state as they are enjoying under second-year coach Mario Cristobal. Oregon signed 23 players from the Golden State in Cristobal’s first two recruiting classes and already has eight commitments and a transfer from California this year.

Both of Cristobal’s recruiting classes have finished in the top two in the Pac-12 rankings, per the 247Sports composite — the first time Oregon has finished top two in consecutive seasons. The Ducks signed the top conference class and the No. 7 class in the nation over the offseason. (USC finished No. 20 — its worst ranking in the modern recruiting era. UCLA was No. 40.)

Oregon (7-1 overall, 5-0 in the Pac-12) has been one of the prime beneficiaries on the recruiting trail of USC and UCLA combining to go 8-16 last season and getting off to a slow start this year.

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The Ducks’ 2020 class ranks No. 16, one spot behind Washington for No. 1 in the Pac-12. UCLA is at No. 50, USC No. 64.

“It’s almost like sharks smell blood in the water. They’re seeing a down USC with some coaching stability issues. UCLA still hasn’t won in a long, long time and now everyone’s swarming,” said Greg Biggins, a national analyst for 247Sports. “Oregon has been very aggressive recruiting the SoCal area over the last three years and it is paying off. They have gone head to head with both L.A. schools and been able to land players in recent years that they wouldn’t have been able to land just four or five years ago.”

A tough nonconference schedule and roster packed with young players might explain why UCLA football struggled in the early portion of the season.

Oregon’s 2019 class was anchored by several Southern California prospects, with six of the top 21 players in the state choosing the Ducks. The top five players in their class were from the Southland. Each ranked among the top 100 players in the nation, including the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2019 class, Kayvon Thibodeaux of Westlake Village Oaks Christian.

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The movement from California to Eugene has been branded on social media as “#CaliFlock” and a flock of prime prospects has continued to fly north in the 2020 class.

Of the eight commits from California, four are rated as four-star talents, including Calabasas High’s Johnny Wilson, the No. 4 receiver in the state and a top 100 prospect. Former USC receiver Devon Williams was a top 50 prospect coming out of Lancaster Antelope Valley High. Bellflower St. John Bosco four-star wideout Kris Hutson also switched allegiances. He decommitted from the Trojans and later chose the Ducks.

“Oregon has become kind of the sexy name again in the Pac-12,” said Brandon Huffman, a 247Sports national analyst. “Those L.A. kids are seeing that USC and UCLA are in turmoil with coaching questions where Oregon looks to be in much more stable shape.”

That stability and Oregon’s recruiting success begins with Cristobal.

Oregon’s Mase Funa sacks Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed during a game in September.
Oregon’s Mase Funa sacks Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed during a game in September.
(Chris Pietsch / Associated Press)

He has been known as a strong recruiter throughout his career, including as an assistant head coach and offensive line coach under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2013-16. The importance of recruiting was constantly reinforced.

Cristobal has followed the mantra that recruiting is the lifeblood of a successful program and created an environment where everyone on the staff recruits and everyone does it non-stop.

“He obviously understands how important the head coach is in the recruiting process,” Huffman said. “He’s really put his self in the mix there and also really hired a strong staff of assistants that have good recruiting chops. It’s been very much an SEC-style approach to recruiting where it’s, ‘We’re a national brand and let’s go out and recruit like it.’ “

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When talking to recruiting staff members at other Pac-12 schools, the words most often used to discuss the Ducks are “aggressive” and “relentless.” They recruit their top targets harder than any other school, inundating them with calls, texts, graphics and social media messages.

“I’ve never seen a staff recruit harder,” Biggins said. “Cristobal is probably the head coach most involved in the grind, but top to bottom, they all are just maniacal. If Oregon wants a kid and you talk to them and ask them, ‘Hey, who’s recruiting the hardest?’ They’ll always say Oregon.”

The Ducks’ staff has built great relationships with many high school and seven-on-seven coaches. They have a diverse group of assistants with ties to different areas of the country, including those who relate well to many players from the Southland.

USC coach Clay Helton is growing very confident in freshman Kenan Christon’s ability to be an all-weather running back for the Trojans.

“When they built their staff, they built it to be genuine,” said Malik James, who founded and runs Premium Sports, one of the top seven-on-seven programs in Southern California. “You got these coaches wearing [Air] Jordans. You got coaches wearing fitted hats backwards. You got coaches in gold chains. And I don’t think it’s a reach. I just think that’s who they are.

The Ducks are known for getting prospects to visit Eugene to see the campus, facilities and experience the atmosphere around the program. Biggins said that Oregon, at times, does a better job of getting Southland players on campus for a visit than USC and UCLA.

“When we talk to a recruit that goes on an unofficial or official visit to Oregon, the first thing they always say is, ‘As soon as I got off the elevator, there were 30 assistant coaches and staffers and [administrators], all yelling and screaming for me,’ “ Huffman said.

“It’s really a top-to-bottom recruiting approach, but it’s really geared because of Cristobal, who demands his assistants be aggressive recruiters. That really is what makes it so remarkable. When kids talk about the Oregon visit, they talk about from the second they got off the elevator, they felt wanted. They felt like they were wanted to be a part of that family.”


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