Oregon’s all-time leading rusher Royce Freeman finally exhausted his eligibility after the 2017 season. That left the Ducks with the impossible task of replacing him in 2018. With few players on the roster with any experience, and expected starter Tony Brooks-James a questionable fit for Mario Cristobal’s downhill, between-the-tackles rushing attack, the school that has become “Running Back U” entered 2018 with the most uncertainty at the position in a decade.
Freshmen CJ Verdell and Travis Dye stepped up and performed admirably, given their youth. The duo rushed for over 1,700 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, numbers that on the surface appear comparable to those produced by Freeman in his best seasons.
But at times, it looked like both players were square pegs that the coaching staff was trying fit into round holes. Neither back is particularly suited for a ground-and-pound system, and fans are craving a big-bodied bell cow who can turn the two-yard gains that were so prevalent a year ago into five-yard gains.
Luckily, the staff has a plan to bulk up the backfield, and it starts with an under-the-radar prospect from SEC country.
Trey Benson: Oregon’s Top RB Target
These days, news of a three-star recruit favoring Oregon isn’t likely to make headlines. The Ducks are targeting the big names, so three-stars are primarily fallback options.
That’s not the case with Trey Benson. The 6’0”, 205-lb. prospect from Greenville, Miss. is the top running back target on the Ducks’ big board. Running backs coach Jim Mastro is reportedly crazy about Benson, and the staff has made him a priority.
Why are the Ducks so high on him? Although he’s merely the 62nd-best running back in the 247Sports Composite, Benson has the tools to far exceed his ranking. With ideal height and the frame to add more weight, Benson has the look of a between-the-tackles workhorse, one who can thrive in the Ducks’ bludgeoning system. His tape shows a player who isn’t afraid of contact, and one who has the speed and creativity to make something out of nothing.
His build and running style are reminiscent of former Alabama star TJ Yeldon, a running back whom Cristobal witnessed in person during his time with the Tide. Yeldon was a terrific fit in an Alabama offense that resembled the Ducks’ current scheme. If the Ducks can get similar production from Benson, concerns about the Oregon running game should subside.
But Benson has more than “good tape” and size going for him. He’s a terrific athlete, running a 4.49 laser-timed 40-yard dash. And his 116 SPARQ score was third best, regardless of position, at The Opening New Orleans Regional. At the event, he earned MVP honors as the best player at his position. A player with top-flight athleticism to go along with a solid build, Benson has the potential to be a force for whichever program is lucky enough to land him.
He has been clear that the Ducks are his favorites. In an interview with 247Sports, he said:
“Right now they’re (Oregon) number one. I’m not afraid to leave the state … I love Oregon. I feel like I’m needed there and that’s how I wanna feel. I have a great relationship with Coach Mastro; we talk all day, everyday!”
The Ducks have been fighting to get Benson on campus to seal the deal. He wasn’t able to make it for the spring game, and being so close to Mississippi State, the school outside of Oregon that has been recruiting him the hardest, it’s important to get him to Eugene as soon as possible. Luckily, he has a visit set for next month.
It would take a lot for Benson to commit elsewhere, although things have gotten interesting within the last few weeks. While the Ducks are far and away the favorites, other big-name programs have taken note of his talent and have offered him as well. After the Ducks offered him in March, Notre Dame, Penn State and Florida State have all followed suit and thrown their hats in the ring.
It’s Oregon versus the field right now, but the Ducks would like to get a commitment from Benson sooner than later, especially before these other programs start to zero in on him.
Tirek Murphy: The Ducks’ Not-So-Distant Second Option
Four-star Tirek Murphy (Middle Village, N.Y.) has the look of a pro-ready running back. The 6’0”, 220-lb bulldozer is a bulked-up monster in the backfield, and there’s no doubt that he would feast in a downhill rushing system.
The Oregon staff prefers Benson, but that’s more a testament to how highly it views him than a slight against Murphy. With offers from Michigan, Miami, LSU and Notre Dame, Murphy certainly has plenty of pedigree himself.
Unlike Benson, Murphy was able to make it to Eugene for the spring game, and he was blown away by his time there. In an interview with 247Sports, he said:
“When you visit Oregon, you don’t want to leave … I want the coaches (of his future school) to treat me like the coaches at Oregon do. That’s how it should be. That’s what I am looking for. ”
If Murphy were the Ducks’ top choice at running back, they might be the favorites to land him. But since he’s not, he’ll likely end up elsewhere, unless Benson spurns Oregon.
For a while, it looked as though Notre Dame would get Murphy, as he was one of their top running back targets. But since the school recently landed the best all-purpose back in the country, Chris Tyree, it doesn’t look like Murphy will end up there either. With a limited number of available scholarships and a crowded running back group already on campus, the Irish probably won’t have space to add a second tailback this cycle.
His recruitment is an open book right now, with visits planned for Tennessee, Texas A&M and LSU. Northern schools like Pitt and Michigan also remain in contention, so it’s anyone’s guess where he’ll end up.
Still, the Ducks haven’t closed the door on him. He’s a premier prospect, and they’re going to continue to pursue him until or unless Benson decides to “quack.”
Isaiah Newell: The Two-Position Star
The biggest wildcard in the Ducks’ search for a running back is three-star athlete Isaiah Newell (Walnut Creek, Calif.) The 6’3”, 215-lb prospect wants to be recruited as a running back, but he shows intriguing potential on the opposite side of the ball as well.
At 6’3”, he’s certain to draw comparisons to other tall running backs like Derrick Henry and Najee Harris. He doesn’t yet have the weight of those players, but with a few years in a strength and conditioning program, he could develop into a game-wrecking force from the backfield.
Still, he might be limiting himself by sticking to running back exclusively. In an interview with 247Sports, he said:
“Everyone is (recruiting me at) running back except Arizona. That’s what I want to play.”
The Ducks do like the physical halfback, but might be more willing to take him if he were open to playing both ways, taking some reps at linebacker as well. While Newell is high on the Ducks, calling them his leader in an interview with 247Sports, the question is whether the Ducks are as high on him.
Matt Prehm from 247Sports listed Newell as one of the “next five prospects to commit,” stating that the Ducks are the team to beat. While that may be the case, the Ducks may not have room for him when all is said and done. Benson and Murphy are higher priorities for them right now, and while Newell offers intriguing potential, he probably isn’t a “take” at this point. Of course, that could change in the near future, especially since he’s such a vocal proponent of the Ducks.
Elite running back play has been a staple of Oregon football, and Cristobal hopes to keep it that way. Clearly the staff believes that Benson is next in line to take the mantle, but Murphy and Newell certainly have the potential to thrive as well.
In a year where the Ducks aren’t in any rush to sign a player at the running back position, with plenty of young talent already on the roster, Benson, Murphy and Newell have stood out as prospects worthy of pursuing. Whichever one Oregon ends up with, expect him to carry the load as the Ducks continue their transformation to a physical, downhill rushing offense.
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Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.
Joshua is an adopted Duck fanatic, originally hailing from southwestern Pennsylvania. His love for the University of Oregon began as a young child when he became mesmerized by the flashy uniforms and explosive offenses of the Chip Kelly era, and now, he follows the team religiously. His fondest memory of the team is seeing De’Anthony Thomas race past Wisconsin defenders back in the 2012 Rose Bowl. A true football enthusiast, Joshua loves studying the intricacies of the game, and he aspires to become a professional sports journalist. Joshua now resides in Morgantown, West Virginia where he works in customer service. When he’s not watching Oregon replays, Joshua loves reading, writing, and spending time with his family. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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