Oregon Running Backs Looking to Leave a Legacy

Darren Perkins Editorials 6 Comments

Entering the 2018 football season, Oregon fans were cautiously waiting to see who would step up into the starting running back positionFans had been spoiled by having one of the Ducks’ all-time greats slotted in the position for the previous four years. From the 2014 Marcus Mariota-led national runner-up team to the Mark Helfrich demise, and through the “odd” year of Willie Taggart, the Ducks had the stalwart Royce Freeman as their starting running back.

Oregon has had a solid string of running back recruits dating back to the mid-2000s with the likes of Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and DeAnthony Thomas. But after years of stability and clear lines of succession, in 2018 Oregon fans were left to wonder, “Who’s next?

The answer came in what some have come to know as the “Thunder & Lightening” duo, the pair of freshmen running backs CJ Verdell (Thunder) and Travis Dye (Lightning), who’ve been reliable offensive contributors ever since.

In their three seasons together, Verdell has led the charge with 2523 rushing yards, 536 receiving yards, and a total of 23 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Dye has amassed 1840 rushing yards, 467 receiving, and accounted for 11 touchdowns.

Bob Hubner

CJ Verdell reels off some hard-fought yards.

Unfortunately, 2020 was an injury-plagued year for Verdell, while Dye, along with everyone else, was limited by the restrictions brought about by COVID-19. Both should be healthy entering next fall, and with spring-time injuries to fellow Duck running backs Sean Dollars and Trey Benson, Verdell and Dye currently have no real competition on the Oregon depth chart.

In the run-up to their senior season, as noted in a recent Oregonian article on the two running backs, they might well be the best running back tandem in the country. However, many Oregon fans might be hesitant to agree with that assessment, as many have felt that the duo hasn’t quite lived up to the legacy of the aforementioned Oregon greats.

Many see Verdell as a steady and serviceable back, but certainly not the hard-nosed, “thunderous” workhorse of a runner like Stewart or Freeman. And many see Dye as a competent and shifty “scatback,” but not one who possesses the same kind of “lightning” of a James or Thomas.

While it is true that Verdell and Dye may not have come in as heralded or as talented as some of their Oregon predecessors, Oregon has also altered its style of play over the past few seasons under coach Mario Cristobal. Cristobal’s more conservative ball control, win-in-the-trenches style of play contrasts the high-flying circus act seen during the Chip Kelly and Helfrich days. This contrast in style has led to a lower octane, lower yards, and lower scoring style of play. Hence, not the top-notch production at the running back position that Oregon fans had become accustomed to.

Tom Corno

Travis Dye cruises in for six.

The best running back comparison from the Kelly-Helfrich era to the Verdell-Dye era would have been in 2013 when the less dynamic 2012 backup Byron Marshall played solidly for a season without Barner, just before the arrival of Freeman in 2014. During their two full seasons in Eugene in 2018 and 2019, Verdell and Dye put up similar stats to that of Marshall and backfield mate Thomas Tyner from that high-powered 2013 team that went 11-2 and finished No. 9 on the final AP poll.

This makes me believe that Verdell and Dye would have done just fine in Oregon’s previous era.

As they enter their final year, they most likely won’t go down as Oregon’s best, but they have a real chance to finish their careers leaving a lasting impact on the Ducks’ running back history. With a solid statistical season and, say, another Pac-12 championship under their belts, this dynamic duo has a real chance to leave behind a solid legacy for future backs to aspire to.  

Perhaps years from now, when a couple of old Oregon fans are reflecting on the beginnings of the Cristobal era, they might fondly recall with a smile, “... We did have a couple of really good running backs back then, Verdell and Dye; they were quite the 1-2 punch!

Darren Perkins
Spokane, Washington
Top photo credit: Bob Hubner

Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.

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Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

You straddled a fence quite nicely in this article Darren, because describing the two running backs as “solid” is accurate, but they are not the same as so many other RB duals we have had in the past. When I think of thunder and lightning RB duals….I still recall back to Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrett Blount. Now THAT was thunder and lightning!

In fact the next question becomes….“who is to replace the current dual who is better than they?” Is the talent at running back steadily declining?

You had quite a tasty sentence in your article, Cristobal’s more conservative ball control, win-in-the-trenches style of play contrasts the high-flying circus act seen during the Chip Kelly and Helfrich days.”

As a shameless plug–I will be writing about precisely that subject on Sunday, with some interesting feedback from the mentor of Cristobal, Nick Saban.

Duckman

Oregon has also altered its style of play over the past few seasons under coach Mario Cristobal. Cristobal’s more conservative ball control, win-in-the-trenches style of play contrasts the high-flying circus act seen during the Chip Kelly and Helfrich days.

This is why comparisons to previous RBs is so difficult. Fumbles and inconsistency are big problems in an offense designed for three yards and a cloud of dust. IMO, Verdell has been too inconsistent and Dye has been plagued by untimely ball security issues. I think Freeman, Blount, or Stewart would have been ideal for a more conservative offensive approach.

My hopes for 2021 are 1: Verdell is healthy the entire season, 2: one or more of the younger backs gets a meaningful number of carries, and 3: Dye excels as the third back used only situationally.

Haywarduck

I will always be grateful for the effort and dedication both of these young men have given our program. We can harken back to previous times, but these aren’t the past. These guys have carried us, like Justin and Troy did before, through some lean times in the Oregon Football Program.

While the LB position is loaded now, when Troy Dye led the LB group it was anything but loaded. He carried that group and without him we would have been in a world of hurt. Same can be said of the qb position. Without Justin the Oregon Football Program would have had a much different history.

These two backs may not be in the same talent class as Troy and Justin, but they too have carried us through some tough times. We should celebrate these two during their last season. We may see the new talent rise up and take some playing time, but these two guys have help bridge a gap in time where Oregon Football could have dropped into depths no one wanted to see.

So the future is bright, the talent coming in at all positions will challenge the old wide receivers, LB’s, DB’s and really everywhere. This doesn’t mean we have to forget or under appreciate what these warriors have done for the program. Let’s cheer on these lads one more season! Great article Darren, thanks.

Santa Rosa Duck

Thank you Darren. If they can both stay healthy, I think they can do some damage this year. Staying healthy is paramount because the running back room is lookin awful skinny this year. Maybe we will have true freshmen contributing. GO DUCKS!