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.
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.
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 (Oregon coach) 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Buckner, who helped lead Chandler to its fifth straight title in 2020, said he was “shocked” when Cristobal arrived at Chandler and he was offered.
“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.”
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 after football,” Buckner said. “And Phil Knight, he has a really tight connection with the program.”
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. 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. “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.”