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Oregon does its part to stay with the Pac.

Byline: Austin Meek The Register-Guard

The line separating children and adults is never blurrier than on national signing day, when middle-aged men feverishly refresh their computer screens while teenagers pick hats off of tables.

Meanwhile, fax machines whir and online recruiting analysts - a field that seems to grow fast enough to support the entire U.S. economy - handicap the results.

As Oregon coach Mark Helfrich says: "It's a great day for a lot of people that have created an incredible niche business."

Every player who signed a letter of intent on Wednesday is a star in someone's mind, so it can be hard to know what to believe. In Oregon's case, the difference between a satisfying recruiting class and a disappointing one could depend on which website you consult.

For those still feeling conflicted, here's a simple question that should bring everything into focus.

Do you trust Helfrich and his staff to make better evaluations than the scouting services?

If so, this class shouldn't derail any momentum Oregon has built.

If not, the Ducks could find it increasingly difficult to stay ahead of the pack in the Pac-12.

It's easy to dismiss recruiting stars as meaningless, and in individual cases, that can be true. On the whole, though, research suggests recruiting rankings are a fairly strong predictor of future success in college football.

The average national rank of Florida State's four recruiting classes leading up to this year's BCS title? No. 7, according to

For Alabama the year before, it was No. 2. Auburn won the title in 2010 with four classes ranked in the top 20. Florida did it in 2008 with four classes in the top 15, including Rivals' top class in 2007.

So, yeah, the stars matter. But you don't have to look very far to find teams that have outperformed their recruiting rankings, including the two that met in the Rose Bowl this past season.

Michigan State finished 13-1 with recruiting classes that ranked 30th, 31st, 41st and 40th, according to Rivals. Stanford's past four recruiting classes ranked 26th, 22nd, fifth and 64th.

Like it or not, Oregon has more in common with those teams than the Alabamas and Florida States of the world. Even with a first-class football facility, the Ducks are never going to have their pick of any player in Texas or Florida or Southern California. And without abundant talent in their backyard, the Ducks are always raiding someone else's region to find their best players.

"Distance is still the biggest factor we have to overcome," Helfrich said. "If you ask around the country, that's the No. 1 factor of why a guy chooses a place."

This class confirmed that Helfrich won't be able to step outside the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, blow on a ram's horn and bring recruits running from the hills.

The Ducks landed some highly rated players, including running back Royce Freeman, quarterback Morgan Mahalak and defensive back Arrion Springs. But they missed on some, too, like Washington-bound Budda Baker and five-star athlete Juju Smith, who picked USC over Oregon on signing day.

The result, according to the scouting services, is a solid class that rates somewhere between No. 15 and No. 30 nationally. Respectable, certainly, but still trailing Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and USC in the Rivals rankings.

That's where the recruiting conversation gets complicated. The Pac-12 is getting better around Oregon, which means the Ducks must improve just to keep pace.

David Shaw has Stanford neck-and-neck with Oregon, if not a little ahead.

UCLA is relevant again under Jim Mora, and a legitimate Rose Bowl contender entering next season.

Chris Petersen at Washington is a scary prospect for the rest of the league. We'll see if Steve Sarkisian can restore glory at USC, but if it doesn't happen, it won't be for a lack of talent.

If the Pac-12 is decided by recruiting stars, Oregon isn't going to finish in first place. But this is where we have to consider the possibility that Helfrich knows things the recruitniks don't, and that it's more than a platitude when he talks about these recruits as "our kind of guys."

Every coach will say this, of course, and it's an easy way for fans to rationalize the loss of a talented player. ("He wasn't our kind of guy, anyway.") But at Oregon, measuring intangibles sounds almost like a science.

Helfrich describes eight factors he considers with each player, none that pertain to football. He doesn't reveal what those factors are, but it's not a coincidence that all but three players in Oregon's class were team captains.

Helfrich calls it "managing the knowns," or finding out as much as possible about every player on the recruiting board. It's impossible to predict who will boom and who will bust, but the more information Oregon has about a player's makeup, the better the chances of finding the right guy.

All teams do this to a degree, so the question is whether Oregon can do it better. Can the Ducks sift through hundreds of players, find the ones that fit and assemble a class that looks better on the field than it does on paper?

Helfrich believes they can.

Do you believe him?

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email
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Title Annotation:Austin Meek
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Feb 6, 2014
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