Oregon Football: Coach Helfrich's Biggest National Signing Day Battles
Former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly left the college ranks for the NFL after guiding the Ducks to a second straight BCS bowl win in 2012. While losing Kelly in January made things tough on Oregon, he didn't leave the Ducks empty handed.
The Ducks had a young and talented roster and a solid recruiting class on the way. Still, the late decision by Kelly left his replacement, Mark Helfrich, in a tough spot.
Not only did he need to adjust to being a head coach for the first time, he needed to close the recruiting class by keeping Oregon's commits, while searching for other options.
All things considered, Helfrich did a fine job of holding things together and adding a couple of key pieces to the 2013 class.
A year later, Helfrich is about to put the finishing touches on his first full recruiting class as the Oregon head coach. In order to do so in style, Helfrich has to finish strong and go head-to-head with some national powers to land the last important pieces to the Ducks' 2014 class.
The Ducks are currently sitting at 17 commits and could add up to five or six more if they land all of their targets.
Here are five names to keep an eye on as signing day approaches. Each one is considering Oregon, along with other top programs from around the country, most of which are much closer to their respective homes.
John "Juju" Smith
John "Juju" Smith, Long Beach (Calif.) Poly
The 5-star athlete recently announced the final four schools he is considering. Hometown favorite USC, Oregon, Notre Dame and UCLA remain in the hunt for the No. 3 athlete in the country, according to 247Sports.
Smith would be the ideal fit for the versatile and high flying Ducks. The 6'1," 200-pound athlete has the size, speed and skill to step in and help the Ducks immediately on either side of the ball.
If he were to choose Oregon, Smith has the talent to step in and earn a spot in the rotation, if not a starting spot in the secondary, right away.
If he signs with the Ducks and plays offense, Smith would immediately be an impact player who would challenge for the starting spot left vacant by the graduation of Josh Huff.
It isn't often that the Trojans allow a hometown star of Smith's caliber to leave town, but the Ducks have proven the ability to pull off a shocker in the final moments of a recruiting cycle when squaring off with USC.
Arrion Springs of San Antonio (Roosevelt).
The 4-star cornerback has been committed to Oregon since June. Despite taking official visits to Florida State, Oklahoma, Miami and USC, Springs has shown no signs of backing out of his verbal commitment to Oregon.
Aside from Oregon, the four programs he has visited officially all have the kind of power, tradition and recruiting pull that could put fear into the Ducks as signing day approaches.
All of them are great programs with a long history of success, but none of them can match the type of pressure that the in-state Texas Longhorns can offer a high school star in the Lone Star State.
Springs was a big fan of former Texas defensive backs coach Duane Akina, who helped Texas become widely recognized as "DB U." Even with Akina still on staff over the summer, Springs deflected any pursuit by the in-state Longhorns.
The problem for programs trying to pull star high school athletes from the football-rich state is keeping them on board until they sign on the line. There are not many greater pressures for a high school athlete than what the Texas Longhorns football program can provide.
Thus far, Springs has fought off overtures by other elite programs, but the latest reports indicate that new Texas head coach Charlie Strong and his staff might have convinced Springs to take an unofficial visit to Austin this weekend, the final chance for schools to host prospects before signing day.
Trey Lealaimatafao, San Antonio (Warren).
The 3-star defensive tackle has been busy since decommitting from Texas in December. Since opening up his recruitment, the U.S. Army All-American has officially visited Arizona State, Ole Miss, Texas, UCLA and most recently, Oregon.
According to Damon Sayles, Lealaimatafao will have three hats on the table when making his announcement. LSU, Oregon and UCLA will each be represented by a hat as the talented defender makes his announcement.
The Ducks got the last visit, but LSU is much closer to home. LSU has a number of advantages over Oregon. The Tigers have a much stronger defensive line tradition, familiarity and, most of all, Lealaimatafao has family connections to Baton Rouge and the university.
Despite all the advantages LSU holds over Oregon and UCLA, the Ducks are believed to have a legitimate shot for the defensive tackle. If nothing else, the Ducks present the best opportunity for Lealaimatafao to get early playing time as the Ducks continue to struggle when it comes to signing interior defensive linemen.
That alone could be enough for the Ducks to land the San Antonio native, who has been in constant contact with Springs, another San Antonio native, who would love for Lealaimatafao to join him in Eugene.
Texas A&M is fairly new to the race for the talented defender from one of the nation's top high school programs, but they have apparently made a strong impression on McGraw.
Oregon has been recruiting McGraw since early last year and going back to last spring, his 247Sports profile shows that he has remained steady with the fact that Oregon is one of his top schools.
Despite the recent push by Texas A&M, the 247Sports.com "Crystal Ball" still shows Oregon having a huge advantage in terms of predicting where the physical playmaker will sign.
With a pair of his teammates being heavily pursued by UCLA, it came as a surprise to many that McGraw cancelled a late official visit to Westwood.
That could mean a couple of things regarding his future. It could mean that he is set on signing with Oregon and believes adding Texas A&M, a school much closer to home, will add some excitement to his announcement.
The other thing it could mean is that the Aggies made such an impact on the Louisiana star that he might be making a late switch to the SEC, despite the fact that he has told me and others for months that he wants to head west for college.
Technically, College Station is west of New Orleans, but Oregon fans are hoping he sticks to the idea of heading to the west coast to play his college ball.
Khalil Oliver, Meridian (ID) (Rocky Mountain).
The 3-star safety is a former Boise State commit who decommitted when Chris Peterson bolted to take over the Washington Huskies' program.
Oliver is focused on three schools as he approaches his decision, and all three reside in the Northwest.
The Broncos remain in the mix despite the coaching change, but since decommitting, the No. 4 player from Idaho has officially visited Washington and Oregon.
The connection to the Washington program is pretty evident with Peterson having recruited him to Boise State. Seattle is still close to home, so Oliver could easily stick with the coaching staff that he has the longest relationship with.
Oregon got the final chance to impress Oliver when they hosted him on campus last week. According to 247Sports' Justin Hopkins, the Ducks did just that.
After speaking with Oliver following his visit, Hopkins wrote the following.
It was great, I loved the city of Eugene," Oliver said. "It (Eugene) reminded me a lot of Boise and Meridian. I was really impressed with the Jaqua Academic center. That is the one thing that really impressed me. Academics are very important to me and they talked a lot about them.
It might be tough for the Ducks to overcome the familiarity with the coaching staff in Seattle, but it will be interesting to see the border rivals fight to the end for Oliver's signature.