Over the past decade, Oregon has seen its three greatest running backs in school history go through the program. Beginning with LaMichael James, to Kenjon Barner and ending with Royce Freeman, all three take up the top three spots in Oregon’s career rushing yards, single season rushing yards, career rushing touchdowns and single season rushing touchdowns.
With no true workhorse on the team this year, the Ducks are turning to a carries-by-committee approach. Tony Brooks-James will get the opportunity to take over as the top option but, he’ll be sharing carries with a trio of running backs, all of whom appear capable of making a difference.
The time is now for senior Tony Brooks-James.
After an offseason spent getting healthy and living in the weight room, Brooks-James gets the nod as the starting running back. He’s the only player on the depth chart with meaningful carries in a game, amassing 1,557 yards and 14 touchdowns in three years.
As a sophomore, Brooks-James had a breakout season when he ran for 771 yards and nine scores in place of the oft-injured Freeman. But when Freeman elected to return to Oregon last year, Brooks-James saw his would-be carries dwindle. That combined with a rash of injuries saw his growth stunt and production drop to the third running back on the depth chart.
After putting on 15-20 pounds during the offseason, Brooks-James looks more than capable of being the lead back on the team.
“(Running backs coach Jim) Mastro told me he wanted me to put on a couple more pounds and be more durable,” Brooks-James said. “I’ve lost maybe half-a-step, but I still got the speed and burst... it’s worth it knowing I’m able to do more.”
Pushing Brooks-James for carries will be redshirt freshman CJ Verdell.
Technically a newcomer since he’s yet to step foot on the field, Verdell spent all of last year getting healthy and diving head first into the play book, something that’s paying dividends now. He is a different type of back than Brooks-James, bringing a power-style that head coach Mario Cristobal wants to implement.
Fellow redshirt freshman Cyrus Habibi-Likio is the biggest back on the team, standing 6-foot-1, 207 pounds. Sophomore Darrian Felix saw a lot of fourth quarter action last year but produced in the limited role, finishing with 30 carries for 182 yards and a score.
Senior Taj Griffin is the make-or-break player for the Ducks. An athlete with world-class speed, Griffin has struggled to find a position on the team, switching between receiver and running back in his three years. After spending spring and summer camp working with the running backs, Griffin has found his home and should be a homerun threat every time he touches the ball.
Freshman Travis Dye is the lone newcomer who could make a difference this year.
The younger brother of preseason all-American linebacker Troy Dye, Travis is drawing raves from coaches and players alike from his summer workouts. Listed at 5-foot-8, one would think Travis fits the normal mold of previous Oregon running backs. But he weighed in at 197 pounds, showing he’s more than accustomed to taking and delivering blows.
The Ducks averaged 72 plays a game last year and with quarterback Justin Herbert throwing it 25-30 times a game, that leaves 40-45 running plays. Oregon will probably go with a committee approach because Brooks-James is notorious for getting banged up and probably can’t carry the ball 20-25 times a game, even in his bigger state. He’ll be most effective getting 12-15 touches a game, being spared by Verdell and the power running game.
I think Cristobal and Mastro are going to use Griffin more so than in the past because he’s so electric with the ball in his hands. Mastro is the inventor of the pistol formation and it’s something Oregon has been practicing so having two backs will be imperative for success.
Projected Starter: Senior, Tony Brooks-James
Projected Backups: Redshirt Freshman, CJ Verdell — Senior, Taj Griffin
Projected Depth Chart: Brooks-James — Verdell — Griffin — Sophomore, Darrian Felix —Freshman, Travis Dye