Mario Cristobal has made Oregon a Pac-12 recruiting superpower

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EUGENE, Ore. — A group of recruits walk off the elevator of Oregon’s lavish football facility, greeted by hoots, hollers and applause from the staff members waiting on the other side. Dab smack in the middle of that welcome is — who else? — the program’s 48-year-young, extremely-fired-up head coach Mario Cristobal. He leads the every day charge for his program on the recruiting trail; so why would the marquee event Saturday Night Lights be any different? Cristobal is shaking hands, giving out hugs and back slaps, embracing an important crop of people that have only been on campus for mere minutes.

After some small talk among the coaches and the prospects and their families, a group picture is taken and Cristobal leads everyone a room over to the dining area where he gives the presentation on the team’s nutrition program, highlighted by the “organic kitchen.” The second-year Oregon coach’s smile gets bigger as he talks about most of the food being local from the fruits, vegetables, meats and fish, while standing underneath a sign that lights up and reads “eat your enemies” with logos of the other programs in the Pac-12. His favorite meal is breakfast and it seems that way for some of the recruits as well.

The charismatic Cristobal certainly didn’t miss breakfast on this Friday where 247Sports was in the building and neither did his staff. The facility tour leads prospects across Brazilian hardwood floors into player meeting rooms that smell like Italian leather because the seats are, yeah, indeed made with leather shipped from Europe. The woodworking, carpentry and interior design around the place would impress Thomas Sheraton. But what really seemed to get the juices flowing for all involved was the photoshoot where the head coach will soon find himself pictured with many of these coveted recruits splashing across their respective social media pages, fist pumping, smiling and most of the time throwing up the O sign. The extremely personal approach continues to bear fruit. Since the weekend ended, Top247 receiver Johnny Wilson announced his commitment to the Ducks and several others told 247Sports that this atmosphere would be tough to beat for them, too. The No. 12 recruiting class in the country figures to get even better.

“We’re very active,” Cristobal said during a 30-minute sit down with 247Sports. “We’re just ourselves. I think it all started with who we hired at each position. Every single one of these guys are high octane, high energy, passionate guys. We have some females in the building that are the same way. Very passionate about not only football and development but also recruiting and I think we all know this is a personnel driven industry. It certainly makes a big difference and it’s a third or maybe more of the process of building or rebuilding a program. We’ve taken a really deep and intense dive into making sure we continue to elevate and enhance the potential of our roster.”

Oregon enters the season as the preseason pick to win the Pac-12 North. We’ll find out soon about their Playoff hopes with a Week 1 clash against Auburn in Arlington, Texas. The Ducks are coming off a 9-4 season where they only dressed 72 scholarship players but bolstered this year’s team to the allotted 85 after signing the No. 1 class in the Pac-12 for the first time in the history of the 247Sports Composite, headlined by six California blue-chippers including the state’s top prospect, five-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. The haul finished No. 7 nationally.

When Willie Taggart offered Cristobal an opportunity to join his staff at Oregon prior to the 2018 season, Cristobal traveled out West with the mindset that this was an official visit. He had a great gig as the offensive line coach at Alabama. A lifelong Florida resident who played at Miami, then had two stints coaching at his alma mater before attaining the head coaching job at FIU, Cristobal had lived in the Sunshine State virtually his whole life other than a three-year stint at Rutgers and then the four years with the Crimson Tide, where he built on his reputation as one of America’s top recruiters. Cristobal didn’t know what to expect on his way out West — he just remembered his dad telling him once that lines that divide cities and states on a map mean nothing.

“I fell in love with it right away,” Cristobal said. “I said to myself, ‘There is no way I’m leaving here without accepting the opportunity.’ I felt we could take things here to a completely different level.”

Cristobal left the machine at Alabama, where he recruited a who’s who of first-round NFL Draft picks, to try and help Taggart build one back up at Oregon. The Ducks weren’t far removed from being a machine themselves, but were coming off a 4-8 campaign in 2016, the final season for Mark Helfrich. When Taggart bolted after one 7-6 season for Florida State, players campaigned for the promotion of Cristobal and got what they asked for heading into 2018. In return, people around the facility tell 247Sports the program is more disciplined, the weight room and nutrition plans have tightened up and everything done inside has a reason behind it.

“Why I love our place more than others, No. 1, the way we’ve resourced our place,” Cristobal said. Behind him it’s impossible to miss the row of rare and high-dollar Nike sneakers that recruits sitting in this chair later won’t miss as well. When recruiting Los Angeles, Cristobal prefers to wear his Kobes.

In college, Cristobal played with quarterbacks Craig Erickson, Steve Walsh and 1992 Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta. He’s been around some good ones as a coach, including Jalen Hurts. At Oregon, getting their 6-foot-6, 237-pound starter Justin Herbert to return this fall instead of declaring for the NFL Draft this past April may have been his biggest recruiting win yet as a coach.

“This guy is the best I’ve been around,” Cristobal said. “He combines all the things of all the great ones and does it at 6-foot-6, 240-pounds. The arm strength, I’d love for you to watch a practice to watch him make a hash-to-opposite sideline throw effortlessly. The accuracy is really just off the charts. His ability to run with the football is excellent. His ability to direct the defense, understand coverages, flip protection, know where to go with the ball, understand the run game, get us to correct numbers is special.”

Behind Cristobal’s desk you’ll find a National Recruiter of the Year plaque for his efforts at Alabama where the Tide signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class every year he was on staff. His chops on the trail were a big reason why Oregon beat Alabama for 2018 class jewel Penei Sewell, who now as a sophomore is already considered one of the best offensive linemen in the Pac-12. Such as it was this past weekend with all the big-name recruits on campus, Cristobal’s fingerprints are all over this ballyhooed 2019 class.

“I think it’s as high caliber as I’ve been around,” Cristobal said of the haul. Five signees were consensus Top100 recruits, five more ranked inside the Top247 and then a few were coveted JUCO targets led by top-ranked offensive lineman Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu who Cristobal lit up when he talked about him losing 45 pounds to get down to 325 since he got to Eugene.

“Kayvon is already squatting 500 which is something,” Cristobal said. “He’s just a grinder. Same thing with (linebacker) Mase (Funa), (defensive lineman) Keyon (Ware-Hudson), (receiver) Mycah (Pittman), (safety) Trikweze (Bridges), that body continues to grow. Mycah from day one is a guy that just eats up the weight room. Just eats it up. These guys they’re all hungry. They still have a lot to prove and they know that. That’s the best part about them. They’re driven and they’re here to prove themselves.”

So is Cristobal, who wasn’t sure when he’d get another shot. He took an FIU program that was still very new to FBS level football in 2007 and had them playing in their first two bowl games in 2010 and 2011. However he was fired after a 3-9 showing in 2012, ending his six-year reign. FIU football has only had four winning seasons total dating back to its first year in 2002, with another Miami guy in Butch Davis getting that done the last two seasons. Cristobal’s name had some steam to it at one point at FIU for bigger jobs and he was able to build his clout back up under Saban. Now he has a chance to meet his full potential at Oregon.

“We’re making up ground and we’re making up ground fast, very quickly,” Cristobal said. “We have to go out on the field and see where we are. We play a very physical and very tough schedule this season and it will give us an indication of where we’re at.”

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