'If you blink you might miss him': On CJ Verdell and the potential end of an era at Oregon
Only injuries could slow one of the most explosive running backs in program history
(CJ Verdell after Oregon’s win at the 2020 Rose Bowl. Eric Evans/GoDucks.com)
In Tony Brooks-James’ final days ahead of CJ Verdell on Oregon’s depth chart, the then-Oregon senior gave a scouting report on the redshirt freshman running back.
“He’s all the hype. All the hype,” Brooks-James said at fall camp in 2018. “He’s a hard runner. He’s a student of the game. He’s disciplined. He can fit between the tackles or straight up demolish a linebacker. He’s very stocky and strong.”
The report was spot on.
The 5-foot-8 Verdell could sneak through cracks, but at 210 pounds he more often chose to lay the lumber. Pound for pound, he may have been the most punishing running back in Oregon history, tallying 1,000-plus yards in each of his first two seasons as Oregon’s lead runner.
It was a style that could wear a back down, and the last two years it caught up with Verdell. On Saturday, playing “his most physical game,” as coach Mario Cristobal said, he left in the second half with a leg injury. Cristobal confirmed on Thursday it was season-ending. And while Verdell has another year left of eligibility, a return would be for a sixth season with a stable of hungry runners behind him.
“It’s too early,” Cristobal said. “There will be some conversations about that. He’s such a good player.”
In the short term, the Ducks can fall back on Travis Dye. For as long as Verdell has been Batman, Dye has been better than Robin. He’s averaged 6.0 yards on 370 carries throughout his career. He’s scored 14 total touchdowns and is one of the most respected players in the locker room.
“Travis is a workhorse, too,” Cristobal said. “And he has proven that in a lot of different ways.”
It still feels like the end of an era though, doesn’t it? Even if Verdell were to come back, Oregon will be giving multiple freshmen an opportunity to run with the baton in coming weeks. Seven McGee looks slippery, Byron Cardwell Jr. got five touches on Saturday and Trey Benson has a menacing frame at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. The Ducks will also get sophomore Sean Dollars back at some point. They aren’t sure which one of them will become the next go-to, but Verdell sees the potential just like Brooks-James did years ago.
“I’m just helping prepare the young guys and letting them know how things should be,” Verdell said in August. “One thing coach told me and Travis is they really want us to help set the tone of the culture and how things are going to be in that running backs room.”
Compare that to when Verdell’s Oregon career had nothing but open field in front of him:
“Oregon has a great tradition of great backs,” he said in 2018. “You want to hold up to that legacy. We don’t try and come out and say we got to be better than (Royce Freeman) or this guy. We all go out there and do our own thing.”
Verdell certainly had his thing. At his best, few in Oregon history were more explosive. The 257 yards he carved out against Washington State in 2018 was the fourth-highest single-game total in program history. And while Verdell might not have been healthy enough to reach his full potential, he had a knack for performing in big games. He rushed for 187 yards his first time against Oregon State. He had 208 yards and three scores in Oregon’s 2019 Pac-12 championship win over Utah. Just a month ago, he had 161 yards and two scores in the win at No. 3 Ohio State.
And if you go all the way back to 2018, it was Verdell’s number called in overtime as the Ducks ran inside-zone from six yards out to beat No. 7 Washington for the first big win of the Cristobal era.
“(Cristobal) looked at CJ and he looked at (Justin Herbert) and he said, ‘We’re going to score right here,’’’ Oregon guard Shane Lemieux said after that win. “Everyone agreed. There’s not even talk of a field goal. We’re going to score right here.”
Oregon ended that season on a stage at the 40-yard-line of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, RedBox Bowl trophy fresh in hand. Verdell rushed for 46 yards in the 7-6 win over Michigan State and became just the third freshman in Oregon history to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season with a 7-yard run in the third quarter. He celebrated with his teammates on stage while Brooks-James watched from a distance. His season had ended weeks earlier with a knee injury against Oregon State. He stood offstage, and at the time I couldn't help but think of conversation from fall camp that feels even more poignant now.
“He’s a guy that in years to come is someone to watch,” Brooks-James had said of Verdell. “If you blink you might miss him.”
— Tyson Alger