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Oregon Football

Position Preview: Running Back

June 26, 2020

Last season, five different running backs got carries for Oregon. With only Darrien Felix leaving the program, we can expect the four holdovers to contribute in 2020.

A few new faces could be in line for their first career reps. Still, it’s going to take some surprises for this established depth chart to be upended.

CJ Verdell

The redshirt junior is always an interesting discussion point for those debating Oregon football.

One person sees a guy with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, which hasn’t been done many times in Oregon history. Others complain about his injuries, or they get frustrated with the fact that it he seems to charge full-speed ahead rather than reading where the hole is developing.

In my eyes, Verdell has been an absolute stud and an anchor in this offense over the past two seasons. I know he’s gotten banged up, but that's to be expected when you’re a often-used, smaller running back who doesn't shy away from contact.

The durability issue is why a lot of teams have transitioned away from the workhorse concept – unless you strike gold and simply must give one player 20-plus carries a game. The era of the bell cow running back is gone, and Verdell represents the new normal.

Verdell is the kind of guy who can get hot and carry the ball 17-plus times in a game, which he did on five different occasions in 2019. But find success with other guys once in a while and coaches can give him an easier week from time to time.

Comparing Verdell to guys like Wisconsin's Jonathon Taylor simply isn’t fair. Oregon doesn’t want Verdell to be that type of player. Instead, the Ducks want a rested warrior ready to take advantage of big-game opportunities, as he did against such teams as Washington State and Utah.

In his two years, Verdell has racked up 2,678 total yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. And when he has a stretch where his production is below average, it’s not always on him.

Verdell does exactly what is asked of him, and he does it well – while almost never putting the ball on the turf. Barring injury, I fully expect Verdell to be used in a similar role again this season.

A healthy Verdell should be able to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for a third straight season. And that means his name should start creeping up on some of the school record lists.

Travis Dye

Like Verdell, Dye had a solid sophomore campaign, finishing with 658 yards and 1 receiving touchdown. He actually ended up with the same yards-per-carry average as Verdell: 6.2.

I really like watching Dye, because he’s always giving it his all. At 5-10 and 192 pounds, he isn’t the biggest back. He has a more slender frame than Verdell, which may be why he’s primarily a second option. Still, Dye recorded more than 100 carries in 2019.

However, with the emergence of some other guys I’ve yet to talk about, Dye could be challenged as RB2. That’s not to say he won’t get regular work, but he’s going to have to keep improving to do so.

Dye hasn’t been great in pass protection. Other Oregon backs have the edge when it comes to lower body strength, which helps them to slow guys charging after the quarterback.

If he can improve in that area, I could see Dye playing a relatively similar backup role in 2020.

Cyrus Habibi-Likio

After a weird freshman season (only 18 carries but for 7 total touchdowns), Habibi-Likio got an increased role in 2019 – and he didn’t disappoint. He was third in carries with 85, but still managed to lead in rushing touchdowns with 10.

While his total yards aren’t as good as Verdell or Dye, that's simply not Habibi-Likio's brand. His role is to come into the game with fresh legs and absolutely pound the ball up the middle for tough yards.

Habibi-Likio was great in short-yardage situations and got the bulk of goal-line touches. Not to mention CHL had one of my favorite plays of the season: hurdling a Washington defender before strolling into the end zone.

I don’t know if Habibi-Likio ever be Oregon's starter, but he provides tremendous value. He can stay fresh, then earn some tough yards.

It’s never going to be sexy with Habibi-Likio. But he has a critical role to play, and he does it well.

Sean Dollars

Dollars is the final running back to have seen action last year, but his future is a bit more undefined. The redshirt freshman had 7 carries for 81 yards and just 2 catches for 1 yard -- decent numbers from a tiny sample size.

What fans did see from the former 4-star recruit is a shifty running back who is quick enough to become a pretty versatile player eventually. But at 190 pounds, he's unlikely to get 15-plus carries a game.

I could see Dollars as a great weapon as a part-time gadget player, but the three backs ahead of him are going to command touches; Dollars must show he’s deserving of more reps. I do think he could play a key role in 2020, but he could be a year away from being a regular contributor.

Still, Joe Moorhead is a great offensive mind, and he might yet find a niche for Dollars.

Jayvaun Wilson

Wilson didn’t see any touches last year, but there’s a chance that changes. There were rumors of switching him over to linebacker last season, but those faded away – especially given how loaded that linebacker room has become.

What sets Wilson apart is that he's 6-2 and 211 pounds, which along with Habibi-Likio makes him one of the biggest backs in the room. The redshirt freshman is a tough guy to project, because we just haven't seen what he can do in a real game.

As I've mentioned, the roles of the backs in front of him are set: Verdell has established himself as the primary back, with Dye in relief and Habibi-Likio as the power runner. He’ll have to find a way to take some carries from Verdell and Habibi-Likio if he wants to see the field this season in other than mop-up duty.

Trey Benson

The first freshman on this list – and oh boy, is he an exciting prospect. Just turn on the film and you’ll see a guy who looks like a complete back.

That doesn’t mean Benson will contribute right away. It’s hard for freshman at any position to have success, unless you’re a really special player or the team has no depth. Like Wilson, the 6-foot, 209-pound Benson is going to be fighting uphill to get carries.

That said, I think if he impresses in fall camp the coaches will call his number just to see if he might be the running back of the future. Jim Mastro and Mario Cristobal have raved about Benson’s ability, so look for him at least in blowout games.

Benson certainly seems like a guy who could take over eventually, but luckily for him there’s no rush. He doesn’t need to become that player this year -- and maybe not even in 2021.

Expect Benson to be groomed for success over the next year or two, focusing on the weight room and film studies. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for the Mississippi native.

Tags: Football, Oregon
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