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Ducks enjoy fruits of recruiting trail

EUGENE — Mark Helfrich is already off to a good start in preparation for Oregon’s 2019 opener against Auburn.

The Ducks have received 12 known verbal commitments for the 2016 recruiting class to date, players who will be redshirt juniors or true seniors when the team takes the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the BCS championship game rematch with the Tigers announced last week.

Four of Oregon’s promising pledges — running back/safety Brady Breeze, at Central Catholic in Portland but formerly of South Medford; wide receiver Theo Howard, running back Vavae Malepeai and wide receiver Dillon Mitchell — are in The Opening this week, a showcase of some of the most touted high school talent in the country at Nike headquarters in Beaverton.

A handful of other elite prospects with offers from the Ducks will announce where they intend to play college football during the event, which began Sunday and ends Friday.

It has been three years since the NCAA slapped Chip Kelly with an 18-month show-cause order and the program he left behind for the Philadelphia Eagles with three years probation for major rules violations stemming from a $25,000 payment to Willie Lyles, who was working for a Texas-based recruiting service.

Despite the sanctions, Helfrich and his staff have thrived on the recruiting trail.

Oregon’s 2016 class is currently ranked No. 17 nationally by 247Sports. Helfrich’s first three classes were ranked No. 16 (2015), No. 21 (2014) and No. 19 (2013).

“It made Oregon’s staff become aggressive and it made Oregon’s staff get that fire back and hit the trail and recruit really hard across, not just Oregon and the West Coast, California, but the entire country,” 247Sports writer Matt Prehm said on The Duck Pod. “It’s been a positive in a strange way because it has made them work harder and it’s starting to pay off.”

After introducing the 2015 class on signing day in February, Helfrich said Oregon’s coaching staff had traveled to 42 states and visited more than 3,000 high schools since he replaced Kelly.

“(Helfrich) is understanding if you get your name out there more and your guys get out there and see high schools as early and often as they can, they’re going to get success,” Prehm said. “Oregon has been tremendous in continuing their identification of guys who academically qualify, and it has turned into a positive.”

Six members of the 2015 class — cornerback Ugo Amadi, running back Taj Griffin, quarterback Travis Jonsen, defensive lineman Canton Kaumatule, wide receiver Alex Ofodile and offensive lineman Zach Okun — enrolled at Oregon early to get acclimated to campus and compete in spring practice.

Even more players from the 2016 class could get a head start on their collegiate careers.

“Oregon goes after the smart kid,” Prehm said. “They’re offering (football scholarships) earlier, which is huge for Oregon. Getting your name out there and showing the love to high school kids, they like to see that.”

Helfrich would like to see more elite prospects on campus for summer camps, but last month he said Oregon is not going to pay large sums of money to high school coaches just to attract talent.

“We didn’t get some kids on campus this summer because we didn’t pay their coaches,” Helfrich said of the practice, which is commonplace for some power programs.

“That’s a fact.”

All but one member of Oregon’s 2015 class, junior college linebacker transfer Jonah Moi, are on campus taking summer school classes and participating in conditioning workouts.

Based on spring practice, Amadi and Kaumatule are strong candidates to play as true freshmen on defense.

Kirk Merritt, who won the Nike SPARQ national championship given to the nation’s top performer in a series of athletic drills, could have an immediate impact at receiver, running back or returning kicks.

“He’s going to have a chance to be really special,” Prehm said. “When Oregon has guys that do a lot of things, they get on the field quickly. I think Kirk Merritt is going to be a guy that does that.”

The Ducks have also benefited from the graduate transfer rule as the program begins life without Marcus Mariota. Former Eastern Washington star Vernon Adams is in Eugene and expected to enroll at Oregon this summer before challenging Jeff Lockie for the starting quarterback job.

Notre Dame center Matt Hegarty is already enrolled at Oregon and will be in the mix to replace all-American Hroniss Grasu.

Helfrich, running back Royce Freeman and linebacker Rodney Hardrick will participate in the Pac-12 media days July 30-31 in Los Angeles.

Oregon’s fall camp opens on Aug. 10 and the season opener is Sept. 5 vs. Eastern Washington at Autzen Stadium (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

“Our guys are from all over the country, and they’re together from now until Aug. 10 when we’re out there for the first time,” Helfrich said. “The chemistry starts now, and that’s a huge thing.”