EUGENE — The scoreboard at Autzen Stadium said Mighty Oregon vs. Fighting Ducks, but don’t be fooled.
It was Oregon against Clemson on Saturday, and the stakes were significant. D.J. Uiagalelei, the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the 2020 class, was attending the Ducks’ spring game, along with dozens of other coveted recruits.
Uiagalelei was there with his family: his mother, his brother and his father, whose credential said, simply, “Big Dave.”
After the game, recruits mingled on the sideline with former Oregon players, including quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli. Kenny Sanders, Oregon’s recently hired recruiting coordinator, did not leave Uiagalelei’s side.
“Follow me,” Sanders said, leading Uiagalelei up the stadium tunnel and into a courtyard where fans lined up behind barriers to greet the departing players.
“We want you, D.J.!” one of them shouted.
“Come to Oregon!” yelled another.
While this was going on, another recruiting battle was happening on Uiagalelei’s Twitter feed. Clemson fans were showing up in force to make sure Uiagalelei was not swayed by Oregon’s red-carpet treatment.
“Keep your eye on the prize, brother,” one of them wrote. “The natties await in Death Valley.”
Oregon fans chimed in to remind Uiagalelei that committing to Clemson likely would mean sitting a year behind Trevor Lawrence, who led the Tigers to the national title as a freshman. Oregon is set at quarterback for the upcoming season, but the job will be up for grabs in 2020 once Justin Herbert graduates.
If focusing so much attention on a quarterback recruit seems excessive, let me assure you it’s not. Look at the effect Lawrence had on Clemson’s offense. Look at what Tua Tagovailoa did at Alabama, or what Kyler Murray meant to Oklahoma.
The College Football Playoff is just one battleground for the top programs in college football. Another fight occurs in the offseason when those programs go head to head for elite quarterback recruits, the players who can single-handedly elevate a team’s championship potential.
Not having an heir apparent for Mariota remains one of Oregon’s most head-scratching blunders of the past decade. He stayed a year longer at Oregon than he had to, yet the Ducks still lacked a clear succession plan when he left.
Oregon cannot afford to end up in the same predicament with Herbert. He did the program a solid by turning down the NFL draft and staying for his senior season.
Saturday was Tyler Shough’s most extended action as an Oregon QB. The redshirt freshman showed nice touch on his deep ball, good mobility and a solid command of the offense. He has done enough this spring to make you think he will be a solid option once Herbert departs.
Uiagalelei is a different kind of player. At 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, he is an elite baseball prospect as well as a football star at St. John Bosco.
He is the kind of player who, in years past, would end up going to USC or UCLA. Not now.
“I want to play the best football, on the biggest stage, and right now, USC and UCLA is not where it is at,” Uiagalelei told SB Nation in March.
Mario Cristobal has done a lot in a short time to make Oregon football feel like the big time. His whole vision for the spring game, bringing in hordes of recruits and former players, was designed to make this day feel like an event.
“We want to make the spring game a really big deal,” Cristobal said. “I want to meet as many former players as possible.
“It’s on us, on me, to do a better job to reach out and invite all those (players) back.”
The Ducks are making noise, and doing things no one else in the Pac-12 is doing. If they can compete with Clemson or Alabama for a five-star quarterback, it means they are a step closer to competing with those teams on the field.
For a spring game, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.