Football Practice Report: Oct. 28
Venue: Autzen Stadium
Format: Full pads
Sean Dollars looks much improved over last season, and freshman Trey Benson is showing this preseason that the future is bright at running back for Oregon.
Cyrus Habibi-Likio is coming off a breakout season in 2019, and Travis Dye continues to be a reliable change of pace in the UO backfield. But for all their talents, a healthy CJ Verdell will be hard to unseat as the starter for the Ducks, after two straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
"Those guys behind him are great," position coach Jim Mastro said. "But CJ is unique. I think he's going to have a great year for us."
Mastro isn't the only member of the UO staff singing the praises of Verdell this preseason. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was asked recently about preseason camp standouts for the Ducks, and he listed a number of players. The first one he mentioned was Verdell.
Soft-spoken in public, Verdell lets his play do the talking. He ran for 1,018 yards as a freshman in 2018, and was the only player in the Power 5 with over 1,000 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards.
Challenged as a sophomore to make more people miss, Verdell developed that skill over the course of the season. He used it to decimate Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game, running for 208 yards against the best rushing defense in the conference. He ran through the Utes, as has been Verdell's preferred style the last two years. But he ran around a few of them, too, showing off new-found elusiveness.
The vision he displayed in that game and others, the stop-start ability, the explosive first step, his ability to help in pass protection, and that receiving prowess demonstrated as a freshman — it all adds up to a rare package.
"Usually kids are good at one or the other," Mastro said. "But he can do all those things well."
That's not to say Oregon's depth at running back won't continue to be an asset, especially given the toll Verdell's physical style has taken on his body at times. Dye has been a formidable change of pace the last two years, running for nearly 1,400 yards in the process. Dollars and Benson have looked this preseason like they could be worthy of significant roles this fall. And then there's Habibi-Likio, in some ways the heart and soul of the position.
"Cyrus is the leader of our group," Mastro said. "He's like the father figure in our room, and he's taken those young guys under his wing."
If Habibi-Likio does nothing else in his career, Oregon fans will always remember his contribution to last season's win at Washington. But of course, there's still ample time for Habibi-Likio to add to his legacy with the Ducks, and for Dye to do the same, and Dollars, and Benson, and the rest of the UO running backs.
Leading the competition among them for carries, though, will be Verdell, already one of just five backs in UO history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
"He's kind of taken his game to the next level," Mastro said. "He's as dynamic as they come, and we expect a lot out of him this year."
Practice highlights: The Ducks practiced under the lights in Autzen Stadium on Wednesday, with the format resembling a midseason Wednesday practice. That meant a 2-minute drill in the final 11-on-11 period. … With the ones on the field, the offense advanced the ball past midfield before converting a third-and-long thanks to a defensive penalty. With time winding down, Tyler Shough connected with Josh Delgado for a 33-yard completion down to the 5-yard line. But Mykael Wright broke up a pass in the end zone and time expired to give the defense a win. …
With the twos up, Anthony Brown took a shot down the field to open the drill, throwing a rainbow that Devon Williams made a great adjustment on deep downfield. But Trikweze Bridges slapped the ball away at the last moment. Two plays later, Dollars converted a third-and-long with an 18-yard gain, with Lucas Noland making a touchdown-saving tackle. Kristian Williams sacked Brown on the next play, however, putting the offense in a hole from which it couldn't emerge. … Earlier, in a red-zone drill, there were touchdown passes from Cale Millen to Justin Collins, and from Bradley Yaffe to Delgado.
Other observations: Practice ended with reps for the kickoff return team. The linemen on both sides of the ball went into one end zone to do some strength-and-conditioning reps. After getting his in, Kayvon Thibodeaux went over to the sideline and began running sprints by himself. He was soon joined by Sua'ava Poti and Jake Shipley. Eventually, all the linemen were doing sprints after practice, following the lead of the Ducks' outstanding sophomore defensive end. … Verone McKinley III made his presence known for the second day in a row, with a couple of the biggest hits all night, taking on Verdell and Dollars on run plays. …
Collins might have been the most productive wideout in Wednesday's practice. He has overcome quite a bit in his career, missing time both due to transfering and due to injury, and it would be great to see his resolve rewarded this season. … Crowd noise was piped into the stadium for some of the 11-on-11 periods, and during one period every possession began with Wolfmother's "Joker and the Thief." And prior to the 2-minute drill — the "fourth quarter" of Wednesday's practice — "Shout!" played on the videoboard, and the players danced along as they did during games last season.
Interviews from earlier Wednesday:
Running backs coach Jim Mastro
Senior cornerback Daewood Davis
Senior safety Jordan Happle
Sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus