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No. 15 Oregon: Cristobal has Ducks' recruiting program, NFL pipeline humming right along

Ryan Thorburn
Eugene Register-Guard
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal talks to his players after the Ducks' spring game in May. The Ducks have produced 13 NFL draft picks over the last three years. “It’s a collective effort really. We take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Yeah, you’re upping the talent level that’s coming in, but you’re also just pouring yourself into player development. It’s showing up and it’s showing up big."

EUGENE, Ore. — As the players gathered on the field after Oregon’s spring game at Autzen Stadium in early May, coach Mario Cristobal informed them two more Ducks had heard their names called late in the NFL draft.

Brady Breeze (Tennessee Titans) and Thomas Graham (Chicago Bears) were both picked in the sixth round of this year's draft, which took place while the Ducks were battling.

“They were going bananas, they were going nuts,” Cristobal said. “Then we put it into perspective for them.”

Breeze is expected to enter his rookie training camp fourth on the depth chart at safety. The 2019 Rose Bowl defensive most valuable player’s best shot at sticking around Nashville will be on special teams. And Graham is the youngest of the 16 defensive backs listed on the Bears’ roster.

So the Ducks’ day-three picks, including fifth-round San Francisco 49ers selection Deommodore Lenoir, have a battle on their hands just to make the 53-man roster.

Cristobal made the point to his team at the conclusion of spring realizing the NCAA transfer portal has an attractive pull on players who aren’t thriving with the first team.

“If you don’t truly learn how to compete at this level, how are you going to make it on that level?” Cristobal said. “Here you still get your stipend, you still get your meal the next day, your scholarship is still good, you still go to class the next day. At that level, you get your pink slip or whatever they hand you.”

The Detroit Lions took Oregon tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh overall pick of this year's NFL draft, making it two straight years that a Ducks player has gone in the top 10. Current Ducks defensive Kayvon Thibodeaux likely will make that three years in a row; some think he may go No. 1 overall.

Having players drafted is critical for coaches like Cristobal to sustain the level of recruiting Oregon has had since he was elevated to head coach before the 2018 season. The Ducks have produced 13 NFL picks over the last three drafts, headlined by quarterback Justin Herbert (No. 6, 2020) and left tackle Penei Sewell (No. 7, 2021).

For the first time in program history, Oregon could produce top-10 picks in three consecutive drafts with All-American defensive end and Heisman Trophy hopeful Kayvon Thibodeaux being projected as the possible No. 1 overall pick in 2022.

“It’s a collective effort really. We take a lot of pride in that,” Cristobal said. “Yeah, you’re upping the talent level that’s coming in, but you’re also just pouring yourself into player development. It’s showing up and it’s showing up big. That trend is only going to get stronger. I think we all see that. …

“It’s just getting started. That’s the best way to put it.”

Cristobal came to Oregon from Alabama. The Crimson Tide's 2017 recruiting class has had 11 players selected over the last three NFL drafts, including eight in the first round. Mac Jones, who was picked by New England, had to back up two other NFL quarterbacks (Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa) before finally starting last year.

But elite prospects aren’t as patient at most other programs, especially quarterbacks who aren’t anointed starting positions.

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal and quarterback Tyler Shough parted ways after the Ducks' win over Iowa State in the Fiesta Bowl. Shough entered the transfer portal after the season and is now at Texas Tech.

According to the Athletic, the number of scholarship football players who have entered the portal exceeded 1,400 this year. Tyler Shough, Oregon’s starting quarterback in 2020, transferred to Texas Tech. Cale Millen previously left the Ducks' quarterbacks room for a fresh start at Northern Arizona.

Anthony Brown, who transferred from Boston College to Oregon last year, is the favorite to win the starting job over touted freshmen prospects Jay Butterfield, Robby Ashford and Ty Thompson.

“There’s no doubt that, especially this day and age with the way things are with the transfer portal, accessibility to instant eligibility, it has to be a matter of what does that person want it to look like at the end,” Cristobal said. “You’ve really got to look at this from a big picture standpoint.

"I think if guys get shortsighted, if they don’t see some of the great examples out there that show football is a developmental sport, then you’ve got to keep doing what’s got to be done on your side as a head coach to put the pieces in place to make sure the program continues to have success.”

Players had until July 1 to take advantage of the NCAA’s one-time transfer exemption and play for another team in 2021. That’s why Cristobal and his peers around the country won’t be using ink to fill out official depth charts until the third week of fall camp.

Oregon’s stacked 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes are ready to push veterans for immediate playing time and start the clock on the pursuit of their NFL dreams.

“The future here, the trajectory is like very few places, if any,” Cristobal said. “You’ve got to ask yourself if you want to be in that type of a competitive environment and be a major part of that. You wouldn’t be brought here if we didn’t think you had the capabilities to do so.

“We’re fair, we’re very honest to a T, because it’s what everyone deserves.”

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent