Exactly one month after first arriving in Eugene, Dakota Prukop participated in a UO football workout Wednesday that saw him bent over a trash can at one point, only to rally back and nearly win Oregon’s annual competition to be last man standing in a grueling marathon of up-downs.
Wednesday was national letter-of-intent signing day, and UO coach Mark Helfrich announced the Ducks’ 19-player class. It includes the graduate transfer quarterback Prukop as well as six others already on campus, a number that will swell past double digits by the time spring practice starts in late March.
The class was marked by a flurry of early activity, leaving little drama to play out on signing day itself. Oregon’s atypically large number of early commitments left time for a handful to change their minds and sign elsewhere, though the Ducks also benefitted from a late change of heart, by defensive tackle Wayne Kirby on Wednesday morning. It also cleared the path for an unusually large group to make its way to campus early, giving them a significant head start on preparations for the 2016 season and beyond.
“You get ahead, you learn the playbook, you work with the team,” said defender Hunter Kampmoyer, one of five high school recruits who enrolled for the start of winter quarter Jan. 4. “It’s pretty good.”
Prukop, a transfer from Montana State, arrived in Eugene the day before the winter term began, on Jan. 3. Wednesday thus marked his first full month at Oregon, made all the more notable by the Ducks’ first offseason conditioning workout with coaches fresh off the recruiting trail.
The team broke into eight small groups, and rotated between drill stations overseen by coaches. Prukop did shuttle runs with a defensive back, and more than held his own. He began to tire some 45 minutes in, but gathered himself when Helfrich led the team through the up-down drill.
With the team divided into two groups – those above 245 pounds, and those below – Helfrich blew his whistle in successive bursts, players dropping to the turf for an up-down on each one. Tight end Pharaoh Brown outlasted last year’s winner among the big guys, T.J. Daniel. Prukop was among the final five under 245 pounds, before being too slow to rise from the turf between whistles; running back Lane Roseberry outlasted two-sport star Devon Allen to be last man standing.
For Prukop, who is vying to be the figurehead of the Oregon offense in 2016, the display of fortitude and endurance seemed an impressive example of leadership. That he was instead disappointed hints at the caliber of leader he could potentially become for the Ducks.
“I should have been one of the last two standing,” Prukop said. “I’m not in Oregon shape yet. This is different. It’s funny – I’ve been wondering when this would come, because a dominant program like ours doesn’t get by without asking guys to do something that really pushes them to the limit. I’m excited for the next opportunity to do that drill.”
Prukop is one of two transfers already on hand, the other being JC linebacker A.J. Hotchkins. He addresses a position of need after the graduation of inside linebackers Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick, and is “really explosive,” Helfrich said.
Along with Kampmoyer, the high school recruits already on hand include offensive lineman Jacob Capra, linebacker Troy Dye, linebacker Darrian Franklin and receiver Dillon Mitchell. Come spring, they could be joined by three or four more – putting more than half the Ducks’ signing class on campus early.
Two years ago, receiver Jalen Brown was the only prep signee to arrive so early. The number swelled in 2015, and has again this year, though Helfrich doesn’t seem intent upon keeping up the trend.
“I’m very much a supporter of being a high school kid, being a three-sport athlete, going to your high school prom,” Helfrich said. “But by the same token, if they want to enroll early and come here and be great, we’re all for it. It’s very individually based.”
Another player entering 2016 with a head start is Jonah Moi, a JC transfer who redshirted last season while practicing at outside linebacker. As the Ducks shift from a base 3-4 to a base 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Brady Hoke, players like Moi, Justin Hollins and Torrodney Prevot are candidates to move from outside linebacker closer to the line, putting a hand in the ground as strongside defensive ends.
Whatever his role, Moi seems eager to take it on. As Wednesday’s conditioning workout began, around 8 a.m. in the Moshofsky Center, he hopped to his feet and said, “Here we go. Game time.”
“Redshirting helped me a lot,” said Moi, a teammate of Hotchkins in junior college. “Not only learning the system but maturing, and building chemistry with the guys. I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Building chemistry is Prukop’s top priority at the moment too, he said. Upon arriving in Eugene a month ago, he spent a week in intense study of the UO playbook with staff members, before grasping enough to continue studying on his own. He’s been lifting weights and playing catch with teammates, including the incoming freshman Mitchell.
Prukop said offensive lineman Cameron Hunt and the tight end Brown were among the veterans to reach out his first day on campus, making him feel welcome. Prior to spring drills, he intends to continue building those bonds, in the meantime becoming a leader in actions so that he’ll have the credibility to be a leader in words.
“The offense will come; throwing will come,” Prukop said. “But the most important thing is developing relationships with these guys, the coaches, the offensive line, chemistry with receivers.
“You don’t come in here being a vocal guy trying to rah-rah guys when you haven’t been to battle with them yet. You can’t lead without having been led first.”
The coming weeks also will be rife with adjustments academically. Kampmoyer took his first college midterm earlier this week, and had others scheduled Wednesday and Friday. Prukop has begun graduate courses in non-profit management, and is enthusiastic about his instructors – “no matter the subject,” he said, “if you have a teacher passionate about it, it’s going to light a fire inside of you, too. I’ve enjoyed it.”
New quarterbacks coach David Yost is now among Prukop’s instructors, helping him prepare for spring practice now that Yost is off the recruiting trail. Yost was something of a student himself Wednesday, getting a quick crash course before leading the drill he oversaw in the conditioning circuit.
As the Ducks rotated through the circuits, several veterans stepped up to talk their groups through the mechanics of each drill, among them Jeff Lockie, Taylor Alie, Henry Mondeaux, Jalen Jelks, Matt Wogan, Eddie Heard and Cody Carriger. Helfrich only allowed the leaders 20 seconds between drills to explain the basics, and penalized groups that fell behind.
Lockie and Alie are the two returning quarterbacks with experience, and the Ducks also boast a talented redshirt freshman in Travis Jonsen; 2015 scout-team quarterback Morgan Mahalak announced Tuesday he will transfer. Helfrich said Wednesday cornerback Glen Ihenacho also won’t return for 2016.
While Prukop is projected to be at quarterback for the first snap of the Ducks’ opener in the fall, Sept. 3 against UC Davis in Autzen Stadium, he isn’t taking anything for granted. His work ethic Wednesday illustrated as much, backed up by his words after the workout.
“When pressure’s on the line with competitive players, that brings the best out of them,” Prukop said. “I come in here thinking, man, I’ve got some high-caliber athletes I’m competing against. It doesn’t really matter what outsiders say. I’ve seen some good quarterbacks here, and I’m excited to compete with them.”