Last Saturday, the 108-year-old Pac-12 conference took its last breath. As 65,000 spectators at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas watched third-ranked Washington beat fifth-ranked Oregon 34-31 to complete an undefeated season and advance into the College Football Playoff, the Ducks, who will move to the Big Ten next season, took another significant blow: St. Frances’ star quarterback Michael Van Buren decided to decommit from the program.
Van Buren’s announcement was the biggest story in college football recruiting over the last week and a half, with many eagerly anticipating where he’d end up. That question was answered Sunday when he announced he’d be enrolling at Mississippi State in January.
For those who follow high school recruiting, these type of scenarios are commonplace. With the transfer portal looming larger than ever, a player’s comfortable spot in the recruiting class can easily be upended, especially at the quarterback position.
The 2023 Heisman winner, LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels, started his college career at Arizona State. Two other Heisman finalists, Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix, were enrolled at Indiana and Auburn, respectively, before finishing out at Washington and Oregon.
Still, it’s an interesting change. Van Buren will be going from an offensive system at Oregon that Nix directed to a nation-leading 77.2% completion percentage for 4,145 passing yards with 40 touchdowns for a squad that was 11-2 this season and appeared in the Pac-12 title game, to play for a program that only won one conference game this past season and hasn’t won an SEC title since 1941.
The reason is simple: relationships. When new Mississippi State coach Jeff Lebby was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Van Buren had been one of his top recruiting targets. Last year, the Sooners ranked inside the top six nationally in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense. Considered to be an innovative play caller and one of the country’s top recruiters, one of the first phone calls Leddy placed after being hired by the Bulldogs was to Van Buren, who had previously sent along a congratulatory text.
The Banner caught up with Van Buren to talk about his decision and his goals.
Baltimore Banner: Last year, as a junior at St. Frances, you were undefeated heading into the final game against national powerhouse IMG, ranked as the No. 2 team in the country. That 27-16 loss cost you a chance at winning the national championship. This year, due to attrition, early season injuries and the roster being so young, you guys stumbled to a 5-6 overall record, although you almost exacted some revenge against this year’s undefeated IMG squad a few weeks back, losing a tough one, 17-14.
Michael Van Buren: I’m still feeling a little emotional right now, that I won’t have more of those experiences to look forward to with my guys at St. Frances. I’ve a had a remarkable experience here, where I got a chance to compete on the nation’s biggest stage. I’m going to miss my guys, this coaching staff and the entire school, but I’m also looking forward to experiencing things at the next level.
This was a year of adversity for you and the team. After winning so much and just missing out on a national title last year, what did this season teach you more than anything?
I just learned to stay positive through the tough times and to take that leadership role more seriously. It’s cool when you’re winning games on ESPN, when things are rolling and you’re ranked among the best teams in the country. But the true test of a player and a team is when the adversity strikes. The turmoil and ups and downs this year helped me to become a better leader.
You actually graduated early and will be enrolling at Mississippi State in January for the next semester, which will give you some valuable experience playing spring ball, helping you acclimate quicker to college ball. What are you looking forward to when you get there?
I’m just looking forward to putting my head down and grinding, preparing myself to compete right away. I just want to become the best player and the best person that I can be.
Many were shocked when you decided to decommit from Oregon and open up your recruitment. What went into that? Were you unhappy with the additions they made to the quarterback room, with Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel transferring in, making things more crowded? Were you worried about the conference realignment and how Oregon will be affected by its move to the Big Ten, whose offenses aren’t as explosive as what we saw from the Pac-12 this year? How did that whole situation shake out?
At the time that I committed, Oregon felt like the right place for me. And this wasn’t something that happened quickly. I’ve been thinking over the last few months about taking some time to look at the other opportunities out there. Coach Lebby and I had a great relationship when he was at Oklahoma recruiting me. Mississippi State plays in the toughest conference in all of college football, and who wouldn’t want to play in the SEC.
What was the turning point that made you re-evaluate the Oregon decision?
Oregon just no longer felt like the right fit. I know that sounds vague, but as a leader, you have to trust your instincts. They have a great staff, an awesome environment and some exceptional players. But Mississippi State offered something different, and that was a chance to make my own mark on a program that has its sights on improving and being a college football playoff contender within the next few years.
What are your goals moving forward?
I want to be a contributor to Mississippi State taking some next steps to become one of the best programs in the SEC. I want to win a conference championship and be a part of the Starkville community that experiences the playoffs for the first time. I also want to prepare myself to get better and to have a shot at playing at the next level after college.
You mentioned coach Leddy and the staff he’s bringing in as a major reason, because of the relationship you had when he was recruiting you to come to Oklahoma. What is about him that made you decide to take this leap of faith with him?
He’s just so passionate about football and developing quarterbacks. He has a track record of his offenses putting up big numbers wherever he has been. He’s routinely produced one of the top offenses in college football as a coordinator. As a quarterback, you dream of learning from and being mentored by a guy like that. Ultimately, that’s what sold it for me.