The Oregon Trail: Many of Arizona’s top football prospects migrating to Pacific Northwest

Chandler High’s Johnny Johnson III (left) has enjoyed finding success at Oregon – here he is celebrating with JR Waters after a victory in the 2020 Rose Bowl – and helping open the Arizona-to-Oregon pipeline as a member of Oregon’s 2017 recruiting class. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Tyler Shough. Johnny Johnson III.

They are familiar names to college sports fans in Arizona and Oregon. Johnson, a wide receiver, graduated from Chandler High and made several highlight plays for the Ducks in their 2019 loss to Arizona State. Shough, a product of Hamilton High, also in Chandler, started at quarterback for Oregon in 2020.

And there are going to be more Ducks where they came from.

According to the 247Sports Composite Ratings, which use an algorithm to compile prospect rankings and ratings, three of the top five high school players of the class of 2021 in Arizona, and four of the state’s top 14 this year, have signed with Oregon.

Quarterback Ty Thompson from Mesquite High in Gilbert is the class headliner and graded out among the top signal callers in the nation at the Elite 11 Finals, a national competition that invited 20 of the top quarterback prospects in the country to Nashville.

Although Thompson wasn’t named the Most Valuable Player at the competition, he was named the “Alpha Dog” – or top performer – there by 247Sports analyst Andrew Ivins.

Thompson moved past offensive lineman Bram Walden of Scottsdale’s Saguaro High to the top of 247Sports’ Arizona rankings, and offensive guard Jonah Miller from Sahuaro High in Tucson joined the ranks at fifth.

And Chandler High linebacker Brandon Buckner, who is the Composite’s 14th-ranked player from Arizona in 2021, follows Johnson to Oregon.

“The state of Arizona has awesome football, incredible football,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said on national signing day in December. “High-level coaching, high-level teaching and development. … You’re looking at a place that we feel we have to recruit extremely well, extremely hard, because of the caliber of talent, the caliber of coaching, teaching, development there.

“It’s a quick flight to Eugene, so certainly an area that we’re proud to recruit and that we want to continue recruiting, to have success and elevate the program.”

Johnson helped open the Arizona-to-Oregon pipeline as a member of Oregon’s 2017 recruiting class.

“It’s developed in a great way,” he said. “I remember when I was in high school, it was kind of like a one-in-a-million-thing, kids from Arizona get offered by Oregon, period. Now that that train’s kind of rolling, and they kind of see the production from the Arizona product, I think it’s just growing more and more and it’s going to continue to get better.”

So how has Oregon made such big recruiting inroads into the desert?

They do their homework.

“They go and try to identify players and they actively recruit them,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “They don’t just throw an offer and then don’t recruit them. I know this for a fact, that Mario Cristobal came to Chandler High School in January of 2019 to offer Brandon Buckner his first scholarship offer. That was the head coach personally coming to make that offer. So that’s a pretty big deal in today’s world.”

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota Sport Performance Center not only promotes athlete health and wellness, it is a top-notch recruiting tool. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics)

Buckner said he was “shocked” when Cristobal arrived at Chandler.

“I remember the day when it happened,” Buckner said. “It was probably a couple weeks after my sophomore year, and I was in the weight room training, and coach (Garretson) just called me out and he was just like, ‘Coach Cristobal came in and he said that they want to offer you.’

“And at first I didn’t believe it, because I was just so shocked, and it felt so surreal. But he told me, ‘Yeah, they want to come down here and they offered you a scholarship.’ And I was just lost for words, but it was definitely a day that changed my life. So that day really means a lot to me.”

Johnson said Oregon was a “dream school” for him, as well as his first scholarship offer from a Power Five school. That played a significant role in his commitment, but as Johnson pointed out, the recruiting situation has changed for Arizona players offered by Oregon.

Johnson’s offer came late in the process, and he committed to Oregon the next day. Now, Oregon offers to Arizona prospects are more common, and relationships are built between the Oregon staff and Arizona high school players much earlier in the recruiting process.

And it helps that there are Arizona products already there.

“It’s definitely good having somebody that can really relate to where you’re really from,” Johnson said. “I mean, I’m not cool with a lot of dudes from California, Florida, all over the country. It’s just good to have dudes that are from the same state as you.”

The consistent success of the Ducks football program.

Cristobal joined the Ducks as an assistant coach in 2017 with a reputation for being a top-level recruiter during four seasons at Alabama as an assistant coach under Nick Saban. He took over as Oregon’s head coach in 2018 when Willie Taggart departed to Florida State just one season after replacing Mark Helfrich.

Mike Bellotti elevated the program to national prominence from 1995-2008, and handed the program over to his offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, when he retired from coaching and moved into the school’s athletic administration before becoming an ESPN college football analyst.

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Kelly took the Ducks to the precipice of a national championship and they played in four straight New Year’s Six bowls during his tenure.

When Kelly left for the NFL, his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich, stepped up to lead the program. Helfrich led Oregon to the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship game in his second season, but the Ducks again fell short of a title, losing to Ohio State.

The program slipped after that close call, and Helfrich was fired after a 4-8 season in 2016, opening the door for Taggart’s arrival from South Florida. Taggart left after one 7-5 season and Cristobal, his offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, was tapped as the replacement.

Under Cristobal, Oregon won the Pac-12 in 2019 and 2020 and won the 2020 Rose Bowl. And now his 2021 recruiting class might be the school’s best, ranked No. 6 in the country by 247Sports.

A swoosh of money for support and facilities.

Oregon’s opulent facilities are a major attraction for elite recruits. The Hatfield-Dowlin complex, which houses Oregon’s football performance center, ranked No. 2 in the nation in 247Sports’ 2020 college football facilities rankings. It was funded by a $68 million donation from Oregon graduate Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike.

And the Ducks have a history of flashy uniforms dating back to Kelly’s tenure. They are credited as the first team to debut chrome helmets and started a trend of revealing each week’s chosen uniforms on social media during the week of each game.

In 2020, they debuted their “Ohana” uniform inspired by Polynesian culture. The uniform was notably praised by film star and former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson, who played college football with Cristobal at Miami.

The resources extend to academics, too.

Buckner said the academic support Oregon offers also contributed to his decision to commit, not to mention the occasional presence of a certain Nike founder.

“Especially for what I want to major in, which is like business, marketing; they definitely have a lot of tools or resources where I can go and do internships and just focus in on what I want to do for after football,” Buckner said. “And Phil Knight, he has a really tight connection with the program.”

According to Cristobal, landing a quarterback like Mesquite’s Thompson in the early signing period laid the groundwork for Oregon’s highly regarded 2021 class. He described Thompson as a dynamic player who fits Oregon’s system and who Oregon’s staff believes is one of the best players in the country.

“We always thought he was the best (quarterback) in the country, hands down,” Cristobal said. “He can do it all. And he has the makeup to match. He has a DNA made of the right stuff, raised the right way.”

For Thompson, the class headliner, the decision involved a desire to get on the field and contribute early to his team of choice. Private quarterbacks coach Mike Giovando, who trained Thompson in high school, said he thought Thompson would have a chance to start anywhere he went.

“I’m sure that he feels like he’s going to be able to play sooner than later there,” Giovando said. “And I know there’s a guy there already from Arizona, Tyler Shough … played this year, but I think Ty felt like, ‘Hey, I think I can go in there and really have an opportunity to compete early.’ I think he could have done that kind of anywhere.”

Beyond an ability to compete for the starting job, Giovando said Thompson appreciated Oregon’s winning culture and wanted a chance to compete for a Pac-12 championship.

Oregon’s 2021 class is littered with elite prospects, including offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia from Utah and wide receiver Troy Franklin from California.

But right there with them are Thompson and Walden, with Miller and Buckner rounding out the class. With two of the top five players in its class from the Grand Canyon State and four Arizonans total signing with the Ducks, Oregon’s roster will include a desert flair for years to come.

“Oregon is definitely a big program and is very well known, and then I feel like it’s going to be even a bigger program now,” Buckner said. “As you see with our 2021 class, all the players that are going up there, we have some high-profile type of guys. Ty Thompson, Bram Walden, me, Jonah Miller, so it’s definitely going to be even bigger in years to come.”

Giovando believes Oregon’s stellar recruiting class coalesced around Thompson’s early commitment, much as Oklahoma’s outstanding 2019 class was influenced by the signing of quarterback Spencer Rattler, another Arizona product and pupil of Giovando’s.

“Other guys are able to look around and say, ‘I want to play with that guy.’ And it definitely helps when you draw somebody like him,” Giovando said.

“It was kind of similar with Rattler at Oklahoma. There were some receivers in his class that he met that they were able to probably get just based on the fact that Spence was going to be the guy. They wanted to play with him. So I’m sure there’s a lot of that … and I’m sure Ty had that same effect on Oregon.”

Oklahoma signed the No. 1, 3 and 11 wide receivers in the country in its 2019 recruiting class. Jadon Haselwood, Theo Wease and Trejan Bridges combined with Rattler to form the top four signees in that class.

While Oregon’s receiving recruits aren’t rated quite that highly, the Ducks came pretty close by signing Franklin, the No. 3 receiver in the country, and Dont’e Thornton, the No. 6 receiver in the country, from Maryland. Isaiah Brevard, a four-star receiver from Mississippi and the No. 169 player in the country, also joined the class.

Mesquite High quarterback Ty Thompson (left) valued Oregon’s winning culture and wanted a chance to compete for a Pac-12 championship with coach Mario Cristobal (right). (Photo courtesy of Ty Thompson)

Much of the buzz around Thompson that helped vault him into the conversation for top quarterback in the 2021 class originated from the Elite 11 Finals. An exclusive quarterback camp held last summer in Nashville, the competition pitted Thompson against Caleb Williams, the No. 1-rated quarterback in the country according to 247Sports, along with several other top signal-callers.

Thompson graded out well, finishing as the runner-up to Williams. Rivals later anointed him a five-star recruit, the No. 9 player in the country overall and the No. 3-ranked quarterback behind Williams and Brock Vandagriff from Georgia.

Giovando isn’t so sure Thompson wasn’t the best quarterback at the competition.

“I think he should have won, (to) tell you the truth,” Giovando said. “I don’t know what the other guy did better than him. Maybe he came in with a little higher ranking. It’s kind of like, to beat the guy with the No. 1 ranking … you really can’t make any mistakes.

“I didn’t really know too much about the other guy, but I know talking to Ty, he felt like, ‘Hey, I think I should have won this thing.’ And that’s the way he should think. You know what I mean? So I don’t think there was much separation between the two.”

So, why this Oregon trail from Arizona?

Along with having a highly rated quarterback to play with, Buckner emphasized the influence of Cristobal in raising the Ducks’ recruiting profile nationally and in Arizona.

Cristobal played offensive line at Miami from 1988-1992 and worked as the assistant head coach, offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Alabama under Saban from 2013-2016 before departing for Oregon.

“I think it’s definitely the culture, and just the mindset that coach Cristobal is bringing,” Buckner said. “Him coming from the SEC, he’s bringing that SEC mentality, how he wants to build this program. And you see that they’re winning and just, they’re building something special. And I talked with my other fellow commits from the Oregon class, and we feel like we can bring a national championship to Eugene. So that’s the No. 1 goal for us.”

Johnson said he has seen the program’s growth under Cristobal and how it has changed the way players from Arizona and other parts of the country perceive the Ducks.

“I think we have a different culture here now that we’ve kind of built something,” Johnson said. “I think kids come here now because they see what coach Cristobal brings to the table, and that this is a winning program and we’re chasing a national championship. We’re not just here for uniforms or anything like that.”
The defensive improvements under Cristobal have also intrigued Buckner. After Cristobal took over, the Ducks quickly gained a reputation for defensive excellence.

“(The) Pac-12 is really not known for defense, but coach Cristobal has definitely changed that,” Buckner said. “And in the Oregon program, as you see with the 2020 (recruiting) class, they picked up the (top) two linebackers in the nation, Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe, and he definitely wants to be known for defense.

“Hard hitting, making plays, flying around, getting to the ball, and I really feel it’s like he’s bringing that culture. Not just getting players on the West Coast, but he’s just getting players from all over who he wants to come compete and make plays and go out there and win games.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christian Babcock expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a related area in sustainability. Babcock, who has interned with The Arizona Republic, is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.