During the 2018 football season, the Ducks had clear-cut leaders at running back with CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. The two accounted for 1,757 of Oregon’s 2,392 rushing yards — over 73 percent of the team’s total.
While an impressive statistic, it was considered a down year in rushing. In 2017, the Ducks had 3,284 rushing yards, and the top three rushers of the year out-performed the entire 2018 team.
Clearly Oregon has some improvements to make, but how will those improvements look?
From 2014 to 2017, the Oregon rushing attack had a clear No. 1 guy: Royce Freeman.
Freeman ran for 5,621 yards in his four years, with 60 (yes, 60!) rushing touchdowns to his name. His incredible rushing total ranks second all-time in the Pac-12. Freeman was one of a kind, and it would be a fool’s errand to try to duplicate his production, right?
Freeman was 5’11, 231 lbs. His combination of size and speed is what landed him in the NFL, and it is the sort of characteristic the Ducks should seek to replicate.
At Oregon, acc0rding to Pro Football Focus, Freeman caused a whopping 247 missed tackles in his career. Most of those, if memory serves, were Freeman running over players from all three levels of opposing defenses. By the way, that means Freeman averaged a broken tackle on 26 percent of his rushes.
This style of running tended to wear down opposing defenses. Over time, players get tired of tackling someone running with such ferocity, and the cracks start to form.
Verdell was 5’9, 201 lbs. and Dye was 5’8, 197 lbs. in 2018. While both have tremendous speed, neither can run over tacklers the way Freeman could. Both are the size of a cornerback, while Freeman was closer to the size of a linebacker.
Under Mario Cristobal, Oregon has recruited bigger players all over the field, but not at running back. No incoming back over the last two classes has weighed over 180 lbs. upon arrival to campus. Given the size of the linemen Cristobal has recruited, it would make more sense to field running backs of complementary size.
So, if the Ducks are not recruiting large running backs, what sort of changes can they make to personnel that would allow for a more powerful running game?
Playing Cyrus Habibi-Likio at a higher rate would be a way to start that movement. Habibi-Likio only has 18 carries in 2018, but had a whopping seven touchdowns despite his limited carries. He was much more of a power runner for Oregon, and the offense would do well to utilize him more moving forward.
Oregon experienced high staff turnover at the end of Willie Taggart’s short run in Eugene.
In addition to Cristobal and other position coaches, the Ducks had to field a new strength and conditioning coach. Aaron Feld brought an energy to the Oregon sideline Duck fans had never seen from a non-position coach before. He also brought size to the roster that hadn’t been seen in a very long time with his off-season workout program. Feld was integral in keeping the aforementioned returning roster up with the incoming freshmen, as far as size was concerned.
Verdell came to Eugene weighing 195 lbs., and is now listed at 209 lbs. As the returning leading rusher, it is important that Verdell uses his growing frame to wear down defenses with his physicality instead of just trying to out-run the opponent.
Given how much growth Oregon has seen across the board since Feld came to town, it is reasonable to assume the Ducks’ running game will become more powerful as the years go by.
I have made it clear this off-season that the 2018 Oregon offense was disappointing, but that I have faith in its ability to produce at a higher clip this season. My optimism comes from the idea that stability will bring success.
The earliest iterations of the Chip Kelly teams at Oregon had the benefit of Kelly formerly coaching the offense. The first team he led as head coach was not breaking in a new offense.
After Oregon fired Mark Helfrich, the Ducks had to employ an entirely new offense. Taggart left and took a significant portion of the coaching staff with him. Oregon broke in new running back coaches in each of the last two seasons. They had to replace Cristobal as the offensive line coach last season. Over time, the coaching carousel takes a toll on player development.
The 2019 Ducks should finally enjoy some stability on offense. This can only lead to an improvement by the offensive line and the running backs.
Oregon doesn’t need a historically good rushing attack in 2019 — that just isn’t a reasonable expectation. With the expected improvement of the passing game, the running backs should have a smaller load to shoulder.
But a solid, 2,500-plus-yard rushing season would go a long way to ensuring that the Ducks finish the season at or near the top of the conference.
Yuma, Arizona Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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