Courtney: How concerning is Oregon’s health at RB?

The second in a series of the prevailing storylines at each position group for Oregon

Posted on April 5, 2021

Chris Courtney
  By Chris Courtney of WFOD for SportsPac12

With spring practices officially underway at Oregon, we continue our look at the prevailing storylines at each position group, while exploring how these questions could impact the Ducks entering the fall.

Today, our Spring Storylines series continues with a look at running back.

Oregon running back CJ Verdell | Bob Hubner/WSU Photos

The 2020 season was the ultimate Rorschach test for those in and around the Oregon football program. The peak and valley nature of a COVID-shortened regular season, capped off with the most mixed bag of emotions postseason you can imagine, left little room for consensus when it came to analyzing the performance of the team.

A second straight Pac-12 Championship on paper is great, but how near and dear is anyone holding the outcome of the 2020 season based purely on the quality of the week-to-week play that we observed on the field?

Verdell

Both in terms of availability and performance, perhaps no other position group embodied the week-to-week nature of last season more than the Oregon running backs.

With a veteran trio in CJ VerdellTravis Dye, and Cyrus Habibi-Likio returning to the fold on the heels of 2019’s run to the Rose Bowl, the Ducks slipped from the Pac-12’s No. 2 rushing offense (174.86 yards/game) in 2019, to finish seventh in the Conference in that category 166.71 yards/game) last year.

And while breaking in five new starters along the offensive line (plus a new starter at quarterback) during a topsy-turvy build up to the season did little in terms of offering consistent production in the run game, it’s still safe to say that the expectations for the Oregon RB room last season went unfulfilled.

Tabbed as arguably the Pac-12’s top returning running back in 2020, Verdell looked like the 2019 version of himself through the first two weeks of the season. However, after back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts vs. Stanford and at Washington State, Verdell quickly saw his impact on the offense dwindle, as lackluster production and a thumb injury derailed what was supposed to be more or less an NFL salary drive for the redshirt junior.

Verdell finished with just 381 yards from scrimmage (285 rushing, 96 receiving) and three touchdowns after appearing in just five games.

Oregon running back Travis Dye | Oregon Football/Twitter

When healthy, Verdell has shown the potential to be the lead back in Oregon’s offense, yet injuries (though relatively minor) have often prevented Verdell from finishing out games throughout his career. His lack of availability from week-to-week, if not quarter-to-quarter, has opened the door for Dye to assume more of a primary role in the offense, which Dye took full advantage of in 2020.

Dye

In fact, of all the skill players on offense for Oregon a season ago, Dye was the one who proved to be the most dynamic and most consistent. Appearing in all seven games in 2020, Dye led the Ducks in rushing (443 yards, 63.3 yards/game) and finished fourth in receiving yards (239 yards on nine catches) en route to five touchdowns, which was also a team-high.

That’s a role Dye no doubt hopes to reprise in 2021, as he’s proven to be the most reliable running back on the roster the past three seasons. Yet, issues with ball security to go along with his lackluster size (officially listed at 5’10” and 200 lbs.) would leave Duck fans feeling a little trepidatious should the fate of the Oregon rushing attack rest on his shoulders.

With Habibi-Likio making the decision to transfer to Boise State in the offseason, the door had finally opened for highly-touted freshmen Sean Dollars and Trey Benson to finally make their mark on the running game. However, leg injuries to both players will keep them sidelined for the spring, and in Dollars’ case, perhaps even the entirety of the summer and into the regular season, per Cristobal.

This is a particularly gutting development for Dollars, who looked like a player ready to assume a bigger piece of the rushing mantle late last season, highlighted by his 52-yard rushing effort vs. USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

San Diego (Calif.) Morse running back Byron Cardwell | 247Sports

Throw in the fact that incoming freshmen Seven McGee and Byron Cardwell won’t be on hand until later this summer, and you soon begin to wonder whether the Ducks will have enough healthy bodies at running back to make it through the spring.

McGee

Fortunately, it is only the spring, and though Dollars’ injury is considered “significant” according to Cristobal, the fourth-year head coach also believes that Dollars will be back healthy at some point in the fall.

That means that by the time the Ducks open the season vs. Fresno State on September 4, they would presumably have Verdell, Dye, Benson, McGee, and Cardwell at their disposal.

For now, that should be enough to keep the lid on the panic button for Duck fans. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should keep it more than arm’s length away as the fall approaches.

Considering Verdell’s history of nagging issues, the recency of the injuries to Dollars and Benson, the youth and inexperience of McGee and Cardwell, and the questions around Dye’s ability to shoulder most, if not all, of the rushing load, and Oregon’s ground game may ultimately rest on footing that is more unstable than it appears.

—Previously in this Spring Storylines Series—

Who gains the inside track at starting quarterback for Oregon?

This story also appears at wholeflockofducks.com and is syndicated with permission. Follow WFOD on Twitter @_WFOD and Chris Courtney @csquared02.




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