The recruitment of John "JuJu" Smith has been an interesting saga, though heading into national signing day, most people wrongfully assume the battle has come down to two schools: USC and Notre Dame.
But what if there was a third?
According to JC Shurburtt, the national recruiting director at 247Sports, Oregon is very much in the mix to swoop in and land the 5-star athlete. Shurburtt even went so far as to predict the major upset:
Many feel this is a Notre Dame-USC battle and I think he could easily end up at either place, but there’s no question that the Ducks are in it and actually there is some confidence in Eugene that he will end up there. If it’s not the Trojans, but he still wants to remain on the west coast and play in the Pac-12, Oregon could be a nice “middle ground” pick.
For now, let's forget about predictions. Smith's mind will be made up in short time, at which point all of these guesses become moot. Let's talk instead about necessity.
Which of JuJu's finalists need to land him more than the others?
Capable of playing receiver, where, at 6'0'' and 200 pounds, he makes for a big and physical target, Smith is tentatively projected to play safety at the next level. It's harder to find a defensive back of his caliber than a receiver of his caliber, which makes him a better value as the former.
Still, that offensive potential cannot be ignored in this discussion since certain teams might be more inclined, for reasons of their own depth chart, to let him catch passes instead of defending them.
We must therefore look at where all three teams stand at both, not just one of, those positions.
Receiver is a position of strength for the Trojans, led by All-American candidate Nelson Agholor, a former 5-star recruit who should thrive as the No. 1 receiver after two years behind Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Behind him, Darreus Rogers is an intriguing up-and-comer who plays a similar role to that of Smith. He's listed at 6'2'', 195 pounds on the USC website, and he's very good at snatching the ball out of midair across the middle of the field.
Steven Mitchell and George Farmer are both question marks, as both will be returning from torn ACL injuries suffered last season. But if either or both are able to return at decent health, it would give USC a deep, diverse core of blue-chip pass-catchers.
Adding Smith would be an embarrassment of riches.
At safety, Su'a Cravens might have one spot nailed down for at least the next two seasons. A 5-star recruit in 2013, he started from day one and was selected to the College Football News Freshman All-America Team last year.
But there's a chance Cravens might be moved to linebacker in 2014, not unlike the way Shaq Thompson was utilized at Washington. Lamar Dawson will be recovering from a torn ACL, so it would make sense for new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who coached Thompson with the Huskies, to employ Cravens in a similar way.
Still, even with that potential (albeit specious) opening at safety, the Trojans have another blue-chip recruit from 2013 in the waiting. Leon McQuay III saw some action as a freshman last year and would be capable of playing at either the strong or free position.
If nothing else, landing Smith would be valuable because it would free up what Wilcox can do on the back end. With a guy like JuJu waiting in the wings to play safety, he would have fewer reservations about moving Cravens to the linebacker/nickelback role that Thompson played. Josh Shaw might also be allowed to stay at cornerback.
However, compared to the needs of the other two schools on this list, it's hard to say USC is the most desperate to land Smith's services. The Trojans are in decent shape at both spots.
Of the three schools being discussed, none could use Smith's offensive potential more than Notre Dame, which doesn't have much in the way of proven receiver commodities.
DaVaris Daniels is the only returning player who caught more than 15 passes last season, and he'll inherit the No. 1 receiver role from T.J. Jones. Behind him, junior Chris Brown will battle William Fuller, Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise and James Onwualu for playing time in a murky situation.
Nobody in that second group has Smith's pass-catching upside, though, and with Daniels set to graduate after 2014, it leaves the Irish in a tight spot moving forward. Fortunately, they have a couple of good-sized 4-stars, Justin Brent and Corey Holmes, committed already this cycle, which should replenish the well with talent.
Smith would just be the best of the bunch.
At safety, things for Notre Dame should be much more settled. Elijah Shumate, Eilar Hardy and Matthias Farley all return, giving the Irish three experienced players on the back end.
They also have rising sophomore Max Redfield, a former 5-star recruit who didn't earn significant playing time until the Pinstripe Bowl.
In an ideal world, Redfield would win a starting job next season, most likely next to Shumate. Built like a tall, rangy, SEC-type safety, he has the potential to take this group from solid to special.
Because of that depth, Smith would not be a necessary contributor on defense in 2014, much like Redfield himself in 2013. If the Irish planned on playing him on that side of the ball, he would likely need to bide at least one year of time.
Still, his addition would give Notre Dame a nice future pairing with Redfield, provided the two could learn to share the field at safety.
Oregon loses three of its top five receivers from last season, returning just speedster Bralon Addison and tight end Johnny Mundt. Josh Huff—who felt like he was in Eugene for a decade—is finally gone, along with Daryle Hawkins and scatback De'Anthony Thomas.
Though they recruit well at the position, bringing in two 4-star receivers in 2013 and another, Jalen Brown, this current cycle, the Ducks would have to at least give Smith a look on offense.
They preach versatility in every facet of the game, and though Smith would deviate from the modern archetype of Oregon receivers—undersized, blazing fast, adept at bubble screens—he is big and quick enough to make an impact in their scheme.
Still, Smith's potential impact in Eugene would likely come on the defensive side of the ball, and it would likely come sooner rather than later. Oregon is losing three starters in the secondary from last season, and even though the one starter who is returning, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, is an All-American candidate, he is also a cornerback instead of a safety.
Mark Helfrich is not Chip Kelly, but he is a Kelly disciple—ready, willing and able to play freshmen if they're talented enough to win the job.
The top safety in each of the Ducks' last two classes were 3-star recruits, so Smith would immediately have the advantage of pedigree. When you flick on the tape, he appears to compound that pedigree with game-ready instincts and the ability to play bigger than his size.
On both sides of the ball, JuJu would be a candidate for early playing time at Oregon. And in a rare class that currently sits outside the top 15 on 247Sports' team rankings, he would be a much-needed beacon of hope for Helfrich's first full recruiting cycle.
For this conflation of reasons, I think Oregon is the team that most desperately needs to land JuJu Smith. As it's also the heavy underdog behind USC and Notre Dame, that could turn out to be a problem.
But as long as Shurburtt, who is very plugged into these circles, thinks the Ducks can (and will) pull it out, fans in Eugene will have every good reason to tune in and hope for the best come signing day.
Follow Brian Leigh: @BLeighDAT