Entering the 2018 football season, Oregon fans were cautiously waiting to see who would step up into the starting running back position. Fans 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.
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.
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!“
Top photo credit: Bob Hubner
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.
Darren Perkins is a sales professional and 1997 Oregon graduate. After finishing school, he escaped the rain and moved to sunny Southern California where he studied screenwriting for two years at UCLA. Darren grew up in Eugene and in 1980, at the tender age of five, he attended his first Oregon football game. His lasting memory from that experience was an enthusiastic Don Essig announcing to the crowd: “Reggie Ogburn, completes a pass to… Reggie Ogburn.” Captivated by such a thrilling play, Darren’s been hooked on Oregon football ever since. Currently living in Spokane, Darren enjoys flaunting his yellow and green superiority complex over friends and family in Cougar country.
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