How Safe Is CJ Verdell’s Starting Spot?

David Marsh Editorials 26 Comments

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Last week I wrote that no starter was safe on Oregon’s offense. One of the positions not mentioned in that article were the running backs. In the Spring Game, there were only three active running backs: the two starters in C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye, as well as walk-on Aaron Smith.

Dye looks as dynamic as ever and will absolutely see the field. As to whether or not he starts games, that completely depends on the opening plays Joe Moorhead wants to run and whether those plays fit Dye’s skill set. Dye is a smaller back who has excelled at being a passing threat out of the backfield in Moorhead’s offense, not being utilized as a big every-down back.

The bigger question surrounds Verdell. Verdell has been a solid running back for Oregon, but during the past three years he has felt like a step down from previous Oregon greats like La’Michael James and Royce Freeman. Verdell has a tendency to seek-out contact when running the ball. He likes to get his head down and hit defensive linemen and linebackers. What is remarkable is that he also tends to fall forward to at the very least gain a few extra yards. However, Verdell doesn’t seem to find open space and get easy chunk-yardage.

Gary Breedlove

Royce Freeman was the perfect running back for a power run game using the spread offense.

For awhile it has been speculated that this is just how Jim Mastro is coaching his running backs. Yet after watching Smith, a walk-on, play in the Spring Game and make jump cuts into open space, this doesn’t feel like a coaching issue, but Verdell continuing to show a lack of vision. In the Spring Game Verdell ran only a few times, but all his runs seemed to be lack-luster up-the-gut runs into linemen and frankly Smith looked like the more dynamic back between the two.

Running back was a position that relied heavily on walk-ons during the spring when Trey Benson and Sean Dollar were both injured, and Seven McGee and Byron Cardwell are both expected to join the team over the summer. McGee looks more in the mold of a De’Anthony Thomas, do-everything back. Whereas, Cardwell looks like a big back who could very well be Oregon’s future feature back.

Is Verdell’s starting spot at Oregon safe or will someone else challenge him and take it from him in the 2021 season?

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: Kevin Cline

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When completely healthy = very safe as lead RB.


I know this is a discussion board, but this discussion is futile beyond shedding light on how people view Verdell and the RB’s today on May 14th. All the primary backs have gained bulk and strength. Probably technique and more. The RB room is deep. Let the boys practice in summer camp and play a few games, then let’s talk about this. Casting stones at Verdell must pump him up to show us. I just hope the coaches give everyone reps and good looks before the meat of the season. We all might be surprised – by Verdell, or others.


Notalot, thoughtful comment. Verdell is a good back. He does the dirty work. As Charles pointed out, in the Mario era Oregon has not had a break away, explosive, back. Verdell is a punishing runner and compliments our punishing Oline. Would I like to see CJ break away and run for daylight? Sure, but until one of the other runners emerges as being consistently better Verdell the starting job is Verdell’s.


Thanks for the article. My answer to the question (How safe is CJ Verdell’s starting spot?) is it’s very safe. I re-watched some of CJ’s highlights before drafting this comment. CJ is a great back. He’s powerful and explosive, his vision and space awareness has improved each year, and he has a ton of experience at this level. The change-of-pace guys will get their touches and packages–as they should–but CJ is the man and I don’t think it’s close.

To the point about his experience, CJ’s big-game experience in the Rose Bowl, Pac-12 championships, and the marquee season opener vs Auburn give me confidence going to Columbus in September. And his experience playing road games all over the conference, including Seattle, Salt Lake, Stanford, and Pasadena, is huge. He won’t be rattled, and that will be so valuable to our uber-talented but young roster.

Previous comments have made this point already, but CJ is not LMJ. LMJ is the GOAT, in my opinion, and would have set Oregon rushing records that would have stood for decades had he stayed one more year. But CJ is sneaking up those lists. Barring injury, CJ could easily end up in the top 3-5 in a number of all-time statistical categories by the end of the year.

Final point is about the O-line. CJ ran behind guys like Sewell, Throck, Lemieux, Warmack, Hansen. That’s a heck of a line. He had some massive holes in 2019. The current line is good but not great yet. If they make a leap this year, as we all expect, CJ will be the heart and soul of the offense, moving the sticks and giving Moorhead shot after shot to open thing up vertically with our receivers. Gives me chills picturing it.


If CJ gets 870 rushing yards, that would put him #5 at Oregon. 1101 rushing yards to move to #3. He will need 10 rushing TDs to move to #5.

Only 2 players pre 2000 are on Oregon’s top 10 rushing categories. Derek Loville and Saladin McCullough. Getting into the top 5 usually is impressive, but sadly not yet at Oregon. We need a few more great backs to make it an impressive accomplishment.

IMO if you want to be considered an elite RB in college you should be averaging over 5.0 yards per carry. CJ did that only in 2019. James, Barner and Freeman did that every year they played. James averaged over 5.9+ every year, Barner 6.0+ every year, Freeman 5.4+ every year.

CJ is a not quite great RB. He is better than 80% of them on college teams, but he has hardly “wowed” me. That is unfair, but that is what people want at the RB position at Oregon.


The only other item is don’t count out Aaron Smith. He led the team in the spring game, and actually looked pretty good. If Verdell gets injured, as many think he may, Smith might be the next man up. Reminds me of when we had Benoit, and he would come in, look very good, but never broke into the staring lineup.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

He is tough, but does not have breakaway speed, or even another gear. The offense changes dramatically with explosion plays and we do not have the RBs to achieve them IMHO.

Agree, but he isn’t a huge drop off from what we have. The kid can see a hole and cut. As long as he isn’t a threat to fumble, he might get some playing time.

Seven looks like the guy who might create some highlight moments. Things are looking up, no matter where you look on the Ducks!

Duck Phan Phil

I have to admit I was impressed with Aaron Smith’s guns and his solid running. But I watched his HS tape, and he doesn’t have the speed or elusiveness of a Kani Benoit at same size. Kani ran a 4.52 at pro day, faster than one of my all time faves Charles Nelson but don’t think he got any any NFL looks. We are so due for an elite RB.


CJ is a good back when healthy. He’s every bit as good as LMJ or Barner IMO. From my perspective, much of Barner or LMJ’s production was due to the system that they ran in at the time, which was cutting edge. They wouldn’t duplicate their college stats running up the gut in the pistol and they didn’t do much in the NFL. Jonathan Stewart and LeGarrette Blount were elite backs and they transitioned to the NFL much better than Barner or LMJ.

The biggest problem I see with CJ is that he’s not durable and a some of that can be attributed to the pistol. We don’t run on the edges and we don’t gas teams with tempo. My guess is that he would be successful running in a different style of offense that doesn’t constantly force him to be a human battering ram and would suffer fewer injuries.

I’m hopeful that a guy like Benson, Cardwell or Dollars can make an impact this year, and I hope JoMo runs less pistol, diversifies the running game, runs more to the edges, out of different formations, and incorporates tempo from time to time. Hopefully he has more control over the offense and MC can dial back his smash mouth attitude.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I don’t see Verdell getting bumped because there is nobody recruited that is in the category of what Oregon needs. Freeman was good, but did not have the breakaway speed. Our best in a long time was LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner and we have nothing on horizon in terms of their talent.

What we have in the wings are simply younger versions of Verdell.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Dollars does not have low 4.50 speed like Barner did….thus no breakaways or explosion plays.

Duck Phan Phil

7 McGee looks really dynamic, but even if he plays RB and not exclusively in the slot, he’ll likely be more a change of pace guy .


Thanks David, for the topic and article. I too think CJ will start the season, but wonder if he will be durable enough to go the distance.

He may not be a LMJ or RF, but he has had two 1000+ yard seasons and multiple 200+ yard games as a Duck. There is no question he can see and hit a hole, just ask Utah. I think a lot of the plays the coach has called actually send him into a wall, hoping he can bust through.

If someone actually takes the job from him, that back will be someone to keep an eye on! It seems more likely that he will get hurt from being slammed into the wall multiple times and his replacement will do enough to hand on to the job.

If I had my druthers, it would be SD$ or 7M take the job from him by being too good to keep off the field. Go Ducks!


“If someone actually takes the job from him, that back will be someone to keep an eye on!”

That’s a great way to put it.


I do not think we see a change in the oregon depth chart at running back for oregon.

  1. I think freshman cardwell and McGee are not on campus and both will likely need weeks of training plus the the 4th quarter program with Feld.
  2. Dollars is injured and is more of a replacement for Dye based on skill set.
  3. Benson becomes the only option to replace CJV and he has a broken leg and will probably have to go through rehab to regain muscle loss.

I just don’t see a viable option as replacement for CJV unless Cardwell or McGee prove to be more than capable.

Duck Phan Phil

CJV is and will be the starter. No he’s not an elite open field runner nor is he an elite between the tackles runner or receiver. But he’s good in all areas, and Mastro and Moorhead love him. Sequon Barkleys and LMJs don’t come around often, and that level of talent doesn’t appear to exist elsewhere on this roster.

Duck Phan Phil

Could he get injured and Wally Pipped? Sure. Happened to Byron Marshall when Freeman came in, though BM found a new home at receiver. Do I see any of our backs playing the Gehrig to CJV’s Pipp? No.


The other issue is Verdell’s durability because of his running style. Running into defenders, rather than bouncing off or eluding them has a negative impact on health and reliability. Somebody is going to rise up and take his spot at some point and they may not look back.

I am grateful for our two RB’s, but they aren’t our future. The question is will the future rise up this season or next? I think we will begin to see the transition to our new RB’s, and I hope they are ready to lead us.


Very astute comments David. Good points to consider – vision is important. A running back needs to follow the designed footpath, get up into the linemen but be able to see developing space and get there!


The honest feeling is, CJ and Dye have been solid. But sadly, despite that, they are no Najee Harris or Saquon Barkley, or even anyone in the barn stable at Ohio State. If the Ducks want to contend for a Natty, they need guys that are just that much better and that much more capable than those 4/5 year guys that, sadly, have been solid but not “big time”.


Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Amen Duck-Brother….