By Rob Moseley
A college football coach is supposed to have a sleepless Tuesday night prior to national signing day, then spend Wednesday nervously staring at a fax machine, waiting for it to spit out cherished letters of intent. At least, that’s the stereotype.
Reality is much different, or at least was for the Oregon coaching staff Wednesday. There were no surprises for the Ducks based on what they anticipated for their 2014 recruiting class earlier this week. No shocking late additions, and more importantly no dramatic departures.
Second-year head coach Mark Helfrich announced a new class of 21 players, including three from junior colleges, Cal transfer Johnny Ragin at linebacker and 17 high school recruits. The class features talent at the offensive skill positions, in quarterback Morgan Mahalak and running back Royce Freeman; beefy linemen on both sides of the ball, including 305-pound Braden Eggert on offense and 291-pound Austin Maloata on defense; and a group of highly regarded defensive backs.
“Our defensive line, I think we addressed that really well,” Helfrich said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, before heading to Portland for a booster function, one of four attend by UO coaches around the state. “… And then the other big need obviously was defensive back, which, I think we addressed that really well.”
By the time Helfrich met the media, though, Oregon’s signing day was already more than eight hours old. Here’s how it began.
4:44 a.m.: The first letter to arrive does so before anybody’s around to receive it. It was from speedy Florida running back Tony James, prompting Helfrich to joke later that “he’s fast in everything he does.”
James suffered an injury in an all-star game over the winter. But “we don’t anticipate any issues” related to the injury once James arrives in Eugene, Helfrich says.
5:30 a.m.: Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood gets to his office, the first assistant coach in the building. He already has a letter of intent that JC transfer Haniteli Lousi submitted in December, and today he’ll add others from high school tackles Tyrell Crosby and Eggert.
Lousi has a chance to enroll for spring drills, and immediately challenge the returning veterans for reps (so too does defensive lineman Tui Talia). Crosby and Eggert are massive, athletic young guys who each boast the trait Oregon most values in linemen – versatility. “We want five guys that can play all five positions,” Helfrich says, to allow for easy reshuffling that keeps the top talent on the field in the event of injury.
6 a.m.: Helfrich arrives and starts making the rounds of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt and sipping coffee, his relaxed nature illustrating how few surprises the Ducks are anticipating today.
Later in the morning, safeties Khalil Oliver and Mattrell McGraw will publicly announce commitments to the Ducks. But Helfrich said Wednesday afternoon that McGraw “has been rock-solid committed for a long time,” and that he would have been shocked had anybody on Oregon’s commitment list not submitted a signed letter of intent. That includes cornerback Arrion Springs, who took a couple of visits elsewhere in January.
7:05 a.m.: Running backs coach Gary Campbell strolls to his fourth-floor office, dressed to the nines as usual and casually whistling. It’s the confident air of a coach who knows he’s done his job for this recruiting cycle; along with the speedster James, the Ducks will receive a letter from the all-American Freeman.
With a big, muscular frame combined with quick feet, Freeman has drawn comparisons to former UO running back and current NFL veteran Jonathan Stewart. His size could be a particular asset in goal-line situations, Helfrich tells media at his afternoon press conference.
7:15 a.m.: Staff members are trickling in and out of the War Room deep in the heart of the H-D Complex. But one guy who rarely leaves his spot is UO donor Phil Knight. He’s been coming down to Eugene for signing day for about 10 years, and he sits near the front of the room, watching televised recruiting coverage on a big screen and monitoring a printer for new letters of intent.
At 7:24 a.m., Freeman’s arrives, and the room is buzzing. “Rolls Royce!” Knight says. “We all just got smarter,” Helfrich adds, acknowledging how talented players can make a coach look good.
As the morning wears on, and the coffee kicks in, the energy level builds, though the atmosphere always remains relatively casual. Helfrich employs a nickname with nearly everyone he comes across – athletic communications director Andy McNamara is “Mac Daddy,” while Knight is “director of player personnel.”
7:37 a.m.: New defensive coordinator Don Pellum enters the War Room, toots a whistle and hollers, “Let’s go!” Defensively the Ducks will add four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs in this class, giving Pellum plenty of reasons to be enthusiastic on this morning.
Helfrich said the change from former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to Pellum yielded nothing but positive reaction from recruits and their coaches. Though the Ducks graduated three defensive linemen from the 2013 two-deep, they added the stout freshman Maloata and the versatile JC transfer Talia, and also will have sophomore T.J. Daniel coming off a redshirt year in 2014.
Daniel played tight end in 2012, then sat out last fall after changing positions, and Helfrich included him among the newcomers to watch on the defensive line when asked about the position later in the day. In-state signee Henry Mondeaux also could play defensive line, though he’s still mulling which side of the ball to play on initially.
7:48 a.m.: The only televised announcement coaches will watch on this day is by McGraw, about whom television commentators question a reported height of 5-10 (the Ducks measured him at 5-11). “Jairus Byrd? T.J. Ward?” secondary coach John Neal asks rhetorically from his War Room seat, mentioning past UO safeties now in the NFL who didn’t measure 6 feet.
Though the Ducks are confident McGraw will announce a UO commitment, a cheer goes up when he makes it official. During an ensuing interview, McGraw is asked about the distance from his Louisiana home, and mentions that “there’s these things called airplanes.” The War Room collectively nods and laughs. “That’s a pretty good line,” someone says.
In all seriousness, Helfrich will say later in his press conference, distance remains the biggest factor in most recruits’ decisions. The Ducks missed out on a few players this year who elected to stay close to home; about the players he couldn’t sign, Helfrich jokes that his wife probably would have preferred George Clooney or Brad Pitt, but that “she got over it, and we will too.”
7:53 a.m.: The War Room is starting to clear out, with just about every letter already in hand. The receipt of Oliver’s isn’t confirmed publicly for a few more hours, to respect an announcement ceremony he’s holding later in the morning, and at least one needs to be resubmitted due to a clerical issue.
But safety Glen Ihenacho’s letter arrives a couple hours later, and the class is complete – for now. “There’s a couple things on the horizon that may or may not happen,” Helfrich says later, indicating a possible late addition or two.
8:19 a.m.: The buzz that left the War Room migrated out to the Moshofsky Center, where coaches are leading the current roster through conditioning and agility drills. The weekly sessions begin annually on signing day, with assistants running different drills and players rotating through the circuit in groups of around a dozen.
“What do we do on ‘National Working Day?” Helfrich asks his players at the conclusion of the circuit, playing off the fact it’s National Signing Day. “Work,” they respond. “That’s right,” he says. “And we celebrate it with more work.”
The players then spread into a wide circle around their coach, who begins blowing his whistle in short, shrill bursts every three or four seconds. Players drop to the turf for an up-down on each whistle. Guys who don’t touch their chests to the ground, or who are slow to get back to their feet, are eliminated by Helfrich or others staffers monitoring the drill.
Over and over, the whistle bleats, players drop to the turf, and some walk off after being eliminated. In the end, cornerback Dior Mathis and running backs J.J. Jones and Kenny Bassett are the final three in contention. After several more tweets of Helfrich’s whistle, Jones is the last man standing – he brought speed and quickness to the scout team last fall, and on this day he proves himself tough as nails, too.
9:15 a.m.: Back in the War Room, Knight is monitoring the printer, still waiting on word from Ihenacho. New outside linebackers coach Erik Chinander stops by, and regales the room with an accounting of the meal he enjoyed while visiting McGraw’s family.
There was gumbo, jambalaya, chicken breasts, and for dessert pound cake and ice cream. “It was impressive,” says Chinander, who after being hired in early January visited about 10 of the players who signed Wednesday, along with taking trips to scout scores of junior prospects.
Noon: The Oregon Club of Eugene has moved its weekly meeting back from Monday to Wednesday on account of signing day, and the full staff of UO coaches and staff members is on hand. Helfrich takes to the podium to introduce the new signees, accompanied by video highlights.
During his introduction he notes that former defensive line coach Joe Schaffeld, who recruited the state of Oregon, is in attendance. “He’s the reason I’m at the University of Oregon,” said Helfrich, who was recruited by the Ducks out of Coos Bay, played at Southern Oregon and then joined the UO staff as a graduate assistant. “So thank him – or blame him.”
Among his remarks, Helfrich will note that the UO staff visited over 1,000 high schools in 31 states while scouting the new class. Though he’ll later acknowledge the problem of distance in recruiting, the Ducks will sign players from Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Idaho and Kansas.
1:30 p.m.: Helfrich is back at the H-D Complex for his press conference with local media, and he’s asked several boilerplate questions. JC cornerback Dominique Harrison and high school receiver Jalen Brown already are impressing teammates in workouts, he reports; the JC guys all have a chance to impact the two-deep early, and linebacker Jimmie Swain could be a contender for special teams play as a freshman.
One member of the media asks Helfrich about Oregon’s character evaluations, which are so extensive they’re becoming the stuff of legend in recruiting circles. Helfrich said the staff evaluates recruits on eight criteria not related to football – social-media presence and academics are among factors they consider – and they’re not afraid to eliminate an athletically talented prospect because of character concerns.
History shows that even the most gifted five-star guys only work out about half the time, Helfrich says. By properly evaluating character, and focusing on recruits with the necessary maturity and work ethic, the Ducks believe they can tip that ratio in their favor. “The more stuff you know up front … you’re increasing your odds of having that end product being exactly what you envisioned,” Helfrich says. “That can’t be compromised."
If he had his “druthers,” Helfrich admits, he’d have liked to have signed one more lineman, on either side of the ball. But the Ducks won’t panic and skip their extensive character evaluations for the sake of filling a need, nor will they rush them in the future to account for the trend of players making early commitments to schools. “The thing you don’t want to do at the end is stretch for a guy that doesn’t fit,” Helfrich says.
By the end of the day, Oregon’s class is rated No. 21 nationally by 247sports.com, No. 22 by Scout.com and No. 26 by Rivals.com. Those numbers, just off the Ducks’ typical rankings of the last few years, could change with a late addition or two, as Helfrich hinted.
But ultimately, the success of Oregon’s recruiting efforts that culminated in Wednesday’s signings will be judged on the field. As Helfrich put it during his remarks to media Wednesday afternoon, “We’ll find out here in a couple years.”