CJ Verdell took his share of criticism for a solid but unspectacular 2018 season. As a freshman, Verdell was a capable ball carrier, rushing for over 1,000 yards and averaging just over 5 yards per carry. But considering he ran behind arguably the best offensive line in the country, those numbers were a bit underwhelming.
Things were different in 2019, however. Verdell upped the ante, rushing for over 1,200 yards and increasing his yards-per-carry average by nearly a full yard. He became one of the top running backs in the conference, proving that he was far more than the product of good blocking.
So, what changed from 2018 to 2019? Verdell improved his ability to run through contact tremendously, and it helped him maximize the running lanes that his offensive line opened for him.
Traits like good vision, top-flight athleticism and reliable hands are all important at the running back position. But perhaps the most important skill a running back can possess is the ability to consistently break tackles. Players can break tackles in a variety of ways, but the best running backs are able to run directly through contact when necessary, as it’s hard to evade defenders any other way when running between the tackles.
The play above is a simple inside zone, and Verdell (No. 7) does a fine job of finding the gaping hole opened by his offensive line. After he gains about 8 yards, Verdell faces a Colorado defender (No. 2) head-on. By this point, the offensive line has done its job; it provided a clear running lane for Verdell to blast through, and it essentially gifted him 8 yards. Now, it’s Verdell’s job to get past this defender and make a solid play an explosive one.
To get through this defender, Verdell does three critical things. First, he alters his line. This is not a lateral, Barry Sanders jump-cut that leaves the defender grasping for air but rather a more subtle north-south shift. As a result, the defender makes contact with Verdell, but it’s not head on, so it doesn’t stop Verdell’s forward momentum. And the contact is at Verdell’s hip, allowing him to bounce off without losing balance.
Second, Verdell drives his legs and accelerates as he approaches the defender. This is extremely important, because at a standstill, Verdell would likely get overpowered by most defenders, as he’s not the biggest running back. But he increases his force by building up speed, so that by the time he comes into contact with the defender he’s far more difficult to corral. Notice how No. 2 for Colorado does the opposite; he slows down as he approaches Verdell, which gives the Oregon running back a far greater chance of winning the one-on-one battle.
And third, Verdell uses his hand to maintain balance after he collides with the defender. Contact balance is hugely important when it comes to breaking tackles, and although Verdell’s north-south change of direction and hard-charging running style allows him to break free of the defender initially in this instance, he would not have made it much further had he not lowered his center of gravity following the collision and quickly maintained his balance — a difficult skill to master.
The play above is another great example of how Verdell has improved his ability to run through contact. Against a much more difficult opponent in a critical situation, the Ducks once again run an inside zone play, and the offensive line does a nice job of paving a hole for Verdell (No. 7) to run through.
But once again, there’s a defender (No. 26) sitting in the running lane, and it’s up to Verdell to find a way to run through him. Just as he did in the play first play, Verdell accelerates as he approaches the defender, increasing his force, and again subtly changes direction as he approaches the defender to decrease the amount of his body that is exposed to the defender. Instead of facing him head on, Verdell again gives the defender his hip, allowing Verdell to maintain his balance and forward momentum.
The above video shows the same play from behind. Note how Verdell drops his shoulders, lowering his center of gravity, and alters his angle. This helps him maintain his balance through contact. It also makes for an even smaller target for the defender to wrap up.
The offensive line routinely gave Verdell room to run in 2019, but it was Verdell who showed the ability to break through initial contact to turn good plays into great ones. Is Verdell consciously thinking of these things in the split second between handoff and contact? Probably not. Every running back has his unique style, and Verdell’s powerful, north-south style, balance and subtle elusiveness fits Mario Cristobal’s power running scheme perfectly.
If Verdell continues to hone his style, he will have many more explosive runs to add to his highlight reel in the future.
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Kevin Cline
Phil Anderson, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.
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