With back-to-back top recruiting classes in the Pac-12, the Oregon Ducks have plenty of talent on the roster heading into the 2020 season.
But some positions are deeper than others, such as running back where between CJ Verdell, Travis Dye, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, Sean Dollars, Trey Benson, and Jayvaun Wilson the Ducks have multiple running backs that would likely see significant time in other backfields around the country.
So how does Mario Cristobal differentiate who to play, then?
"You play them all because they've earned it, they deserve it and they all make us better and they're all different," explained Cristobal Friday afternoon.
Verdell returns for his redshirt junior year and has already stated he wants a third-consecutive 1,000-yard season despite the Ducks playing just seven games.
“I’d definitely like to reach that 1,000-yard mark once again, definitely a big goal of mine,” Verdell said in a Pac-12 media session on October 14th.
“I’m glad he has a goal of 1,000 yards because that would mean he had a heck of a year in seven, eight, nine games,” added Oregon running backs coach Jim Mastro.
If the back can accomplish the 1,000-yard feat, he’ll join legendary Ducks running back LaMichael James in becoming just the second Oregon player to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
However, Verdell also added he's not really focused on any personal goals in 2020, rather just doing his best to do anything he can to help the team win: “To be honest, I haven’t really focused on a lot of personal goals. I’m just definitely focused on what I can do to help better the team.”
Verdell isn't the only one in the running backs room with a team-first mentality.
"The biggest credit goes to the players in that room and also to Coach Mastro," said Cristobal. "I think we've all seen... rooms where you have egos get in the way. Especially when everybody wants the ball. There's one ball. Multiple players.
"That group, whenever somebody has success they are so happy for each other. I mean, they are the first to run down the field and celebrate and congratulate those guys when they make a big play in practice or in a game... That's contagious so tremendous amount of appreciation for those guys. "
Not only do the running backs support one another on and off the field, they also lead the offense on and off the field with Justin Herbert playing on Sundays.
“We’ve talked as a group. We said we’re the veteran group of the offense,” Verdell said. “We’re the ones who have a lot of returners besides the receivers. So, I do think it’s on us to make sure that we’re always heading in the right direction and take control of the offense.”
The three-headed monster of Verdell, Habibi-Likio and Dye have all seen significant playing time since each other's freshman season in 2018, when the freshmen were given the nod over senior Tony Brooks-James. Throughout that process, Brooks-James was nothing but supportive of the next generation of dominant Ducks running backs.
Now, two seasons later that same trio is helping the next generation along with a freshman trio of their own, starting with Sean Dollars.
"He's different this year,” Habibi-Likio said. “He has a lot more hustle to him. He’s not as fatigued, and he worked a lot on his running as well. I think just mentality-wise too, I think he got that year under his belt. He’s come in aggressive and he’s hitting people. He’s picking up blocks which is huge in our offense."
Later, Habibi-Likio praised Trey Benson and Jayvaun Wilson for putting in work this offseason and improving ahead of the 2020 campaign.
"[Benson is] a super athletic kid,” Habibi-Likio said. “It’s amazing how athletic he is at such a young age. Even the way he’s built. He looks like he's been in our program for a few years. He’s around the same weight as me and the same height. He’s fluid."
"[Wilson is] a lot more comfortable in this offense,” Habibi-Likio said. “Last year he was running a bit high in practice. Now he’s lowering his pads and bending."
While Cristobal has said he plans to play "all" of the running backs, there simply are not enough snaps for all six backs to see significant time. Therefore, when deciding on game plans and who plays how much, Oregon goes by who has earned it the most.
"We are going to put together a plan of playing time that relates to who's earned it and who can help us win," said Cristobal. "It comes down to that, as simple as that.
"I do believe sometimes as coaches you do make the mistake of forcing playing time that hasn't been earned, deserved or that someone is ready for. And other times you go the opposite way, you hold back for too long instead of giving someone an opportunity.
"We're working hard to just diligently assess, evaluate film, demeanor in practice, consistency and performance, pride and performance so that we can do that," he said. "It really benefits you in so many different ways to continue to get your team deeper at positions where you need quality depth.
"I think you will see a lot of guys play this year, but if you look at us traditionally, we play a lot of guys."
Oregon fans will get their first look at the 2020 Ducks on November 7th when Oregon hosts Stanford at 4:30 p.m. PT.