Season In Review: Running Back
Reviewing Oregon's 2021 season and looking ahead to spring drills.
RB: CJ Verdell, Jr.; Travis Dye, Jr.; Byron Cardwell, Fr.; Seven McGee, Fr.; Trey Benson, Fr.; Cross Patton, RFr.; Aaron Smith, Fr.; Renoldo Spivey Jr., Fr; La'Vaughn Luellen, Fr.; Sean Dollars, RFr. (inj.)
Starter: A 1,000-yard rusher in both 2018 and 2019, CJ Verdell entered 2021 coming off an injury shortened 2020 campaign and was looking back to form in September. Through five games Verdell had least one rushing touchdown in each game, and his 161-yard performance in the win at Ohio State included a 77-yard scoring scamper. But late in Oregon's opening game of October, at Stanford, Verdell was injured during a third-quarter drive when the Ducks were poised to take the lead. Instead they settled for a game-tying field goal, the game was tied again at the end of regulation and Stanford won in overtime. Verdell's injury not only was a key factor in the loss, but it sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Stepping into the void, as he did after Verdell was hurt in 2020, was Travis Dye. Oregon's leading rusher in 2020, Dye again led the Ducks in 2021 on his way to 1,673 yards from scrimmage as a rusher and receiver. That was the highest total in the Pac-12, making Dye the first Duck to lead the conference in yards from scrimmage since LaMichael James in 2011. Dye averaged 81.8 yards from scrimmage per game in September and 134.6 after; had Dye averaged that 134.6 yards for 14 games rather than 10, he would have finished the year with 1,884 total yards, fourth-most in the FBS and No. 2 among players from Power 5 conferences. As it was, he was 13th in the FBS with 1,673 yards from scrimmage in 2021; Dye's most prolific performance was 211 rushing yards at Washington, when he outgained UW's entire team by himself.
Reserves: In the wake of Verdell's injury, true freshman Byron Cardwell stepped in as the primary backup to Dye. Cardwell ran for 127 yards and a touchdown against Colorado, and for 98 yards with two touchdowns against Washington State. Among Pac-12 running backs with enough attempts to qualify for the leaderboard, nobody ran for more yards per carry than Cardwell, who averaged 6.84 yards per rush. Fellow freshman Seven McGee finished the season with 14 carries, having moved to receiver late in the season. And Trey Benson made his collegiate debut with six carries across nine appearances, dipping his toe in the college football waters after recovering from a major knee injury suffered in 2020. Another returning back, Sean Dollars, wasn't able to play at all in 2021 due to injury.
Developmental squad: Cross Patton brought his catlike quickness and relentless energy to the scout-team offense and also played in four games in 2021, covering kickoffs. Aaron Smith joined the roster as a bigger body in the spring, and the depth at running back for the scout team was further enhanced in 2021 by two other burly backs, Renoldo Spivey Jr. and La'Vaughn Luellen.
RB: Travis Dye, Sr.; Byron Cardwell, So.; Sean Dollars, So.; Aaron Smith, RFr.; Renoldo Spivey Jr., RFr; La'Vaughn Luellen, RFr.; CJ Verdell, Sr. (inj.)
What To Watch: There's still time for decisions to be made about this year's NFL Draft, but for now the roster of returners will list Verdell and Dye. Getting either one back would provide the 2022 Ducks with one of the Pac-12's elite offensive talents, let alone both. But there should be excitement too about the prospect of seeing Cardwell in an expanded role, and Dollars as he gets healthy. Benson reportedly is considering the transfer portal, so that's yet another X factor for the depth at running back this season, and Patton is off to Nevada. McGee figures to get some carries in 2022, regardless of what his primary position is. However things shake out, Oregon figures to have talent at running back when spring drills commence. Still to be determined is who all will be competing for reps.