CJ Verdell became the only Power-5 player in the nation to post 1,000 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving in 2018. He did that as a freshman.
Now running behind one of the country’s top offensive lines as a sophomore, Verdell has a chance to join the ranks of some of the best running backs college football has ever seen. And they all happen to share the same hometown: San Diego.
San Diego has produced four Heisman Trophy winners, all of them running backs: Marcus Allen, Rashaan Salaam, Ricky Williams and Reggie Bush. On top of that, Allen and Terrell Davis both won Super Bowl MVP honors representing San Diego — not to mention Oregon Ducks all-time leading rusher Royce Freeman.
Verdell is certainly aware of the rich history in the city, and is aiming to be up there with those greats one day.
“San Diego’s got that legacy of running backs,” Verdell said. “To be seen as one of those guys —as one of the top running backs to make it out of San Diego — it would definitely be an honor to me. Those are big names.”
He didn’t have to look far to find inspiration at the professional level while growing up in San Diego. Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson was carving up NFL defenses for the Chargers every Sunday just as Verdell’s own football career was beginning to blossom.
“LT was my favorite running back growing up,” Verdell said. “Watching the way he ran, his balance, how he set up defenders...I used to study him, man. I used to watch him like nobody’s business.”
But it’s now 2019, and Tomlinson’s career has been over for eight years. Instead of looking to other running backs for inspiration, Verdell is now the guy that young backs are looking to for guidance. And Verdell recognizes that leadership responsibility as the next step in his development as a player.
“I took it upon myself, me and Travis [Dye] both, to take control of that room and just make sure everybody’s in line and knows what they’re supposed to do,” Verdell said. “At the end of the day, that’s a reflection of us. If those young guys aren’t up to par and aren’t picking up on stuff, it’s just gonna come right back to us.”
Despite being just a redshirt sophomore, he’s the most experienced running back on the roster and wants to leave a legacy on the Oregon program long after he’s gone, just as Royce Freeman did for him in 2017.
“We have player-led meetings with me and Trav, or me and Cyrus [Habibi-Likio], all the time,” Verdell said. “The older guys will lead the meeting and the younger guys will ask questions and make sure they’re comprehending what’s being taught to them.”
He talked about how good players put up numbers, but great players put up numbers while being leaders at the same time. Verdell has already done the former, and he plans to do the latter in 2019 as the Ducks look to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 2014.
If he can accomplish those two goals, he may just be able to accomplish one more in the process: being mentioned alongside some of San Diego’s greatest running backs.
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