Running Through Contact: How Verdell Improved in 2019

Joshua Whitted Analysis 24 Comments

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.

Joshua Whitted
Morgantown, West VirginiaTop Photo by Kevin Cline

Phil Anderson, the Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.


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Great article Joshua. Verdell even made great strides from the beginning of the 2019 season to the end. CJ has, in his time at Oregon, gone from a back with no vision who even totally out in the open field most oftentimes tripped over his own feet or grass blade or whatever the heck was tripping him up, to a back by the end of the 2019 season with some actual vision for the hole and tackle breaking ability. I doubt he will ever reach the illustrious talent heights of some Duck greats, but he and his coaches have obviously cared and worked very hard to improve his game. In fact, he may become the running back who improved the most during his career at Oregon. And, although i doubt he will, if he played at Oregon for all 4 of his eligible years, could actually graduate as Oregon’s all time rushing leader. NO, I don’t think this will happen, but CJ improved himself dramatically last season and is still ‘young’.

(and i do hope CJ does not have CTE problems as he ages, as this is his running style. He does really ‘run hard’, which is probably why he misses so many second halves of games. At least he has coaches / trainers / team doctor who care about him and keep him out second halves when it is in CJ’s best health interest)

Jon Joseph

Thank you JW. It will be interesting to see if CJ plays another down of football for the Ducks? i am certain there are ‘3rd parties’ telling him to avoid the CFB ‘mileage’ and go pro.

BTW, word out of UGA is Newman left because he was not going to start. Wouldn’t it be something if a So Cal kid, JT Daniels, led Georgia to its first title since the 1980’s?

Based on what I saw of Newman vs Clemson and MI ST, I think the guy was way over-hyped. Ducks may well have found the better ACC transfer in Brown?


Daniels and KJ Costello both looking rather prescient with their grad transfers.

Have mixed feelings about CJ’s future direction – getting drafted doesn’t look like a sure thing to me, with a free agent route the most likely given the glut of players that will be available for the 2021 draft.

RB room for 2021 should be crowded, so even if he started, he might not get enough touches to run up numbers greater than 2019. If he’s close to graduating (3 full years on campus) might he try the grad transfer route in 2021 for a program that would want to feature him? Lots of possibilities.


It is my understanding he isn’t even a top ten RB in college right now. If he has a break out season with a new O-line then maybe his draft stock will improve. Without another season to prove himself he seems to be a free agent type back who might prove useful in the right system. I wish him luck, but he doesn’t seem to be a NFL prospect yet.


The thing about running backs in the NFL now is that except for Saquon Barkley, no.2, overall in 2018, RB’s are not prime draft targets. Like every player, he will risk injury by playing another year. But “Draft stock” really no longer applies to running backs.


Great article and I agree with 30, his vision has improved. Verdell has a lot to live up to with the history of RB’s at Oregon. I doubt he will reach those lofty heights, but he is improving. Also, as you say, he fits what Cristobal wants.

I do love the last video clip which gives us an amazing angle to see just what he does when he bounces off the would be tackler. The video also does a good job of showing just how good the O-line was. They just part the line and put a hole in there for Verdell to race through.

In the past it seemed like Verdell would run into the O-line blocking instead of seeing where the hole was going to open up. He definitely has improved and will continue to be a very good college running back.


Thanks Joshua good analysis! The video helps to see the adjustments Verdell makes. I especially like the view from behind – a view that I always preferred during practice. A good running back has to trust his line to open the hole which Verdell does. Verdell has improved his vision and those subtle adjustments (which you pointed out) have vastly improved his game. Keep posting these articles. I value your input!


Thanks for the look & analysis, Joshua, Verdell has been an interesting player to follow. He isn’t as good as the Ducks RB’s, James, Barner, Stewart, Freeman, Droughns, or just the talent of Tyner. But, he has improved; you showed us examples of how he did so.

Along with what the tape showed us here, I thought the biggest area of improvement in his game was, “vision”. Verdell seemed to have “tunnel vision” more than any RB I can remember, straight line running with no deviation. That appeared to have improved dramatically last season, and along with the subtle moves you highlighted here, he will continue to improve.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I agree with 30Duck in how we appreciate the time taken by Joshua to help us see Verdell’s improvement, but I also agree with his vision improving.

Or was he now allowed to make cut-backs?

Jon Sousa

So many mysteries.


Great attention to detail Joshua. Thanks for brining it to us.

This of course begs the question of what got Verdell to make the changes. Was it good coaching ?? Was it natural instinct ?? A combination of both maybe ??

No doubt lots of film work was involved and a desire to improve. After years of being a RB and developing your style it’s not easy to make changes. The mindset for constant improvement like that has to be instilled in a player from the top.


For some reason I’m not so enthusiastic about Jim, maybe its the lack of a franchise RB in recruiting.


OK, first, good read. Verdell has never given me, or most of us from the little I’ve heard in conversations, that “WOW” feeling when watching him even though he’s actually done a pretty good job. Now obviously I haven’t spent hours, or minutes for that matter, studying tape of him and to be honest I haven’t really picked up on the slight move he does appear to throw down just before contact. I think that actually gives me a better opinion of him, even though I’ve never had a bad opinion…it’s just been a consistent, “meh.” I do see him in a different light after this, so thanks for both picking up on his running style and writing about it.

One thing I did see in the videos though, and have noticed for quite some time is that it seems like tackling has evolved over the years to be more run into the person really hard and/or dive at their legs compared to how I was taught. Granted, I was never a D1 player. Heck, I was likely never even an obscure JC player and I’m not going to pretend I could have been, BUT I remember tackling being so much different for both me, and games I watched, be it college or pros.

It seems like the basics of wrap the opponent up and drive through them is no longer a skill that’s used…or rarely is used. There is so much diving at the legs or what looks to be just trying to knock them off balance with your shoulder compared to good form tackling. It makes me wonder if someone like Verdell would have even been able to play JC ball 20-30 years ago? RB’s, from what I can recall, were all usually 6′-ish and 200+lbs and when they broke tackles, they literally had to break a tackle, not let someone bounce off of them…and often they would plow through someone in order to gain the YAC.

None of this is a knock on Verdell, if anything it’s a knock on what looks like the evolution, or devolving, if you will, of tackling. I might not even be right about it, but the way I recall it, I don’t think I’m too far off.

Am I the only one who notices this or did I just not get enough sleep last night and am typing through my…umm…

Jon Joseph

Due to the new helmet to helmet rules, rugby style tackling is what is now being taught. And in the pocket, you cannot tackle the QB below the knees.

It’s entirely different from being taught to lead with the crown of your helmet, lift and wrap-up.

In an effort to reduce head trauma and CTE damage it makes sense. But look out, because flag football makes even more sense as does 7 on 7 football.

Without significant advancements in technology I expect the number of kids playing youth football and moving up from there, will continue to decline.

And changing demographics show lots of soccer fans arriving in the USA.


I was never taught to lead with my head, and definitely not with the crown of my helmet. Always head up so you can see where you’re going and drive through with your shoulder after wrapping up. Maybe I was just lucky and have never had a head injury in football or in 20+ years of hockey, and I do understand that the days of “just rub some dirt on it” are long gone (for good reason), but, and again, this is just me, I see a lot of bad tackling.

I’m sure the speed of the game plays into it as well. I mean the fastest guys when I played would get outrun by most linemen these days. Kids are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be and that has something to do with it, but come on…it’s frustrating to see so many missed tackles when all they’d have to do is wrap them up.

Just my opinion.


You are correct DF that ‘leading with the crown’ was never taught by knowledgable coaches, as neck injuries occurred to the tackler from this, as well as the fact that this was against the rules even ‘back then’ as ‘spearing’.

Leading with the facemask into the sternum area, and simultaneously wrapping up and driving your helmet up through the ball carrier’s chin, was the method taught, and done well, was very rarely broken.

The ‘driving up through the chin’ part of that technique would likely draw flags and ejections today, as it could be construed as leading with the helmet to the head area of the ball-carrier, which can be construed as targeting.

‘Back then’, concussions were labeled as ‘dings’, and most of us ‘maybe’ missed a play if it was really bad, but generally were just ‘talked up’ in the huddle by teammates for the next play. I remember throwing up for 4 days after one of mine, for example, and not one team coach or the team doctor or anyone ever bothered to even ask or look at me.

CTE is a real thing, even if it cannot be seen by any MRI or anything yet to this day, unlike alzheimer’s etc,, and can only be technically diagnosed after death during an autopsy in which the brain is physically sliced up to be able to see it. For most of us, that is probably not worth it to find out for sure whether we have CTE or not haha.

I also bemoan the oftentimes atrocious tackling of today’s game. But if I had to choose between the two, i would rather watch even flag football than thinking that today’s players will have to worry in the future if they are just ‘getting old’ or have CTE, as many of us who played ‘back in the day’ have to do now.

Jon Joseph

You have played hockey that long without the loss of a single chicklet? Amazing!

Jon Sousa

Regarding soccer: I see the main reason that football, basketball, and baseball have been very big in the US is that kids grew up playing it. When you play it, you understand the rules, the strategy, and the difficulty of making a play (and so you appreciate it when you see it done well).

In the last 30-40 years soccer has been played by more and more kids. The mini-van and the SUV are for “soccer Moms”. Yes there are some rabid fans coming to the US, but the engine that drives pro sports is made up of the millions of children playing those same sports.

My granddaughters play soccer and they love it. They have now been to several pro games, including the Thorns. They are also watching more games on TV.

Back to football, with the number of kids playing it declining, there will naturally be a waning interest later on.