Since Oregon’s all-time leading rusher Royce Freeman played his last game for the Ducks on Nov. 25 against Oregon State, Oregon has been looking to match the production the third round pick by the Denver Broncos brought over four years.
Senior Tony Brooks-James is the starter this year but will be sharing carries with multiple running backs.
One of those running backs is redshirt freshman CJ Verdell. His loving relationship with his father, standout high school career and need to compete has shaped him into a possible heir to the Oregon running back throne.
“When [Verdell] got here as a freshman, you could kind of trip tackle him or kind of knock him over,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “And now, you better put your hat on him. You better wrap him up pretty good and rally to the football because he’s gonna be a tough guy to bring down.”
CJ Verdell attributes a lot of his growth to having Freeman as a role model, showing him the ropes to be a successful collegiate running back.
“My boy Royce,” CJ Verdell said. “He definitely set a good example for me. … Seeing how he kind of did things, seeing how he practiced and how he carried himself — I definitely took a lot from watching him.”
Freeman and CJ Verdell share more in common than Oregon football. Separated by three years, the two made their names dominating high school football in San Diego.
In 2013, Freeman became a San Diego celebrity, racking up 2,940 all-purpose yards and 44 touchdowns for Imperial High School and winning the Silver Pigskin award, given to the top high school football player in San Diego. That same season, 14-year-old CJ Verdell made varsity football for Mater Dei Catholic in San Diego, requiring a waiver signed by his parents because he was so young.
Week four of that season, Freeman traveled two hours West to Chula Vista, where his Imperial High School was due to take on underdog Mater Dei Catholic. Freeman showed no mercy, rushing for 256 yards and five touchdowns en route to a 48-21 win.
Although the score was lopsided, it did provide Verdell a chance to show his talent.
“CJ got to run the ball and had some pretty good runs,” his father Chris Verdell Sr. said. “Royce came up to him afterward and said, ‘Hey little man, good running out there.’ [CJ] came home and was pretty stoked saying ‘Royce came up and talked to me. He told me good job.’”
That moment foreshadowed what was to come for CJ Verdell. In his senior year, CJ Verdell had 2,783 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns on the way to winning his own Silver Pigskin award.
Before CJ Verdell even touched a football, he was eager to compete and striving to win. When CJ Verdell was just 5, his family moved to Japan where his father, a commander in the Navy, was stationed. Verdell Sr. remembers how his son showed his competitive edge, racing his dad from the car to the front door.
“We would get out of the car and race to the house, and if he lost, oh my God, he would fall on the ground and pound on the ground and cry,” Verdell Sr. said. “I would use that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you’re not going to win every race.’”
Upon their return to San Diego, Verdell Sr. found another way for his son to compete, signing up 8-year-old Verdell for a youth football workout camp, where he was the only kid who had never played football. Verdell Sr. wasn’t even sure his son knew what football was, but after watching him win every drill, he thought it was something they should pursue.
“His competitive nature kicked in, and he didn’t want to lose the race,” Verdell Sr. said. “He gave it everything he had.”
Verdell excelled on the field, attracting attention from coaches and other parents. He just hadn’t learned to love the game yet.
“He was a standout in practice, but he just didn’t believe that he was ready,” Verdell Sr. said. “His first experience with youth football, I think they lost every game save the last one. So he wasn’t really having a good time.”
Whether it was the nerves or the fact he was playing on the offensive line, CJ Verdell was apprehensive about playing football, but his father was not going to let him quit. Looking for ways to keep CJ Verdell interested, his father asked the team’s coach a simple question: “How about trying him in the backfield?”
“Toward the end of the season, [the coach] put him in the backfield, and when [CJ] touched the ball, he scored a touchdown.” Verdell Sr. said. “The rest is history. He’s been in the backfield ever since.”
CJ Verdell generated plenty of interest over his high school career. He eventually chose Oregon after being recruited by former Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell, who also recruited Royce Freeman. For a brief time, his recruitment reopened when Campbell was let go. Although he never decommitted, the then senior in high school needed to reevaluate his decision. After some time to think and a phone call from new head coach Willie Taggart, CJ Verdell officially signed with the Ducks.
Right before he was due in Eugene for fall camp, Verdell’s grandfather, Pastor Tommie Verdell, passed away. This led to an emotional separation in the airport. Verdell would be on his way to Eugene, and Verdell Sr. would miss out on taking his son to college, going to Mississippi for his father’s funeral instead.
Before the two split, Verdell Sr. took off his necklace and gave it to his son. The chain had been something CJ Verdell would always borrow and always wanted.
“He told me, ‘When you make it to the NFL, you’re gonna get me one just like this,’” CJ Verdell said. “We just sat there and kind of hugged it out and had a moment.”
The moment was unscripted.
“It just came to me,” Verdell Sr. said. “It wasn’t planned or anything. We were saying our goodbyes. … It was kind of emotional. I could tell just from the look in his eyes and mine.”
Although most of their time is spent apart, Verdell’s parents make plenty of time to talk over FaceTime every week, constantly checking in on their son.
“Being in the military, I understand what it’s like to leave home at 17 [or] 18 years old and be away from family,” Verdell Sr. said. “Sometimes you’re going through something yourself and it’s good for family to reach out to you and to make sure everything is okay. We try to make it a habit of calling him quite a bit.”
Verdell’s parents arrived in Eugene on Saturday at 2 a.m. getting less than four hours of sleep to watch their son’s debut for the Ducks
“It was pretty exciting,” Verdell Sr. said. “I know he’s come a long way, but it was pretty exciting to finally get to see him out on the field.”
The box score from Oregon’s 58-24 win over Bowling Green had Verdell’s name at the top. Verdell’s 13 carries for 51 yards led the team in his first career game.
“I was excited,” CJ Verdell said. “I didn’t try to overhype it or get too juiced or anything. I was just kind of in my zone and just trying to be calm and go out there like it was a regular practice or regular game.”
Of course it’s not all football. CJ Verdell spends a lot of his time hanging out with another Oregon running back: Travis Dye. Although they are new friends, the two have become inseparable, even being paired together at Oregon media day. Whether they are waiting to be interviewed together or playing video games (Fortnite or Call of Duty), the two have fun.
“That’s all there really is to do,” CJ Verdell said. “If we’re not sleeping, we’re playing the games…”
Dye added right after: “If we’re not playing the games, we’re playing football.” Dye might be competing with CJ Verdell for touches, but he thinks he doesn’t have long to do so.
“Watch out for my boy, you know 3,000-yard running back right here,” Dye said jokingly. “Two years and he’s gone. You know how it be with CJ Verdell.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack