EUGENE — It took just one play for CJ Verdell to remind the approximately 1,500 in attendance for Oregon’s first spring scrimmage that he’s arguably the Ducks’ most dynamic offensive weapon.
The fifth-year junior running back broke free for a 67-yard touchdown run up the middle and ending in the right corner of the end zone on the opening play Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium.
It was one of several big plays for Oregon’s offense, which saw three of its four scholarship quarterbacks in action including Anthony Brown with the first-team.
“It was the offense’s day today,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “It started off with play No. 1; it was boom — CJ hit a big one and got the offense rolling. The defense had its moments. I do carry the yellow hanky and I throw it when I need to put some people in adverse situations and do some things but for as competitive as it has been today the offense certainly took control of most of the team periods.”
Verdell’s explosive run underscored how his left thumb injury last season not only derailed his 2020 campaign, but so dramatically impacted Oregon last season even as it repeated as Pac-12 Champions.
Saturday’s run covered more yards than Verdell had over his final three games last season, when he had 62 yards on 27 carries with a score.
“I believe CJ Verdell is the best back in the country,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “We got to keep him healthy. Last year that was the freakiest injury you can ever imagine, rip a ligament in your thumb putting your hand on the ground. Travis (Dye) stepped up and had an unbelievable year. CJ is as dynamic as they come and he is a complete package. If he stays healthy, which he will, the sky is the limit for him.”
Terrific as the play was for Verdell and Oregon’s offense, which got great blocking on the play, it was one of a handful of big plays allowed by the defense. However, the defense didn’t allow much else on the ground on Saturday, though Verdell and Dye each only had two carries while walk-ons Cross Patton and Aaron Smith got the majority of the reps.
“We missed a gap on the front and we didn’t cover up with the linebackers,” inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “When you’ve got a back like CJ Verdell who hits a gap like that you’re going to be in big trouble. A lot of teams have been in that situation. We didn’t think we’d be that the first play of the scrimmage but we know how good CJ and Travis and our running back group is. Our line’s playing really well in the spring. You can’t make mistakes with a good offense and guys that are working out there.
“(The offense) came back and they had a (eight)-pay drive in the next drive and then we went a long time after that without giving up a score. I think that was a good test for them and I think as we went through there was a lot of up and down, there wasn’t a constant play. It was up and down which mentally that’s got to get fixed.”
The key for each of the last three seasons has been keeping Verdell healthy on a week to week basis.
He ran for over 1,000 yards in both 2018 and 2019 while playing through a litany of injuries, at times more than one, and didn’t miss a game in either of those seasons, though he left many when pain became too much to tolerate. That iron man streak was snapped in the Pac-12 Championship game and he was sidelined for the Fiesta Bowl as well.
With Verdell and Dye, who had two carries for four yards and two catches for 24 yards on Saturday, as the only two healthy scholarship running backs on UO’s roster this spring, their reps in contact periods are extremely limited. Verdell admitted he’s attempting to avoid unnecessary contact during the offseason.
“You’re not going to take away what his personality is,” Mastro said. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed, tough football player. You can’t take that away. the thing is you have to make sure you have depth, which we do. It’s fortunate. He is what he is; that’s why he’s such a great player. You kind of limit his reps in fall camp and in spring ball just to take the punches away little bit, the wear and tear on the tires, which is what we’re done.
“Once game time comes you can’t ask him (not) to do anything that he’s doing, just the way he plays the game. I love him for that and that’s what makes him so good.”