Darrian Felix

Running back by committee: A recipe for success for the Ducks

Running back by committee: A recipe for success for the Ducks

Oregon Football has a long, storied history of talented running backs that have donned the green and yellow. In recent memory, the program has churned out stars such as LaMichael James, Royce Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner, Jonathan Stewart... The list goes on, and on, and on. 

For the most part, the Ducks have always had talented a running back corps, but each group had its bell cow. The one back that stood out as the number one guy. Even the two-headed monsters of the past had one back that you knew was the "the guy."

That may not be the case in 2019, and that's a good thing. 

The Ducks have a plethora of riches at the running back position, and they have found ways to use every one of their talented ball carriers. 

Through the team's first three games five different backs have carried the ball, with a different player leading the team statistically each week. 

In Week 1, CJ Verdell led the way. In Week 2, it was Darrian Felix. And last game against Montana, it was Travis Dye that carried the load. 

"I think that a tribute to the backs in their room, let alone what Coach Mastro has done with those guys. He's done an awesome job," said Offensive Coordinator Marcus Arroyo. "That group's gonna get a lot of touches all over the board, similar to last year. I think they've stepped up and they've done an awesome job."

Not only are the Ducks using multiple backs, they're doing so in an incredibly balanced fashion. The team has averaged 186 yards per game, but only one player has surpassed the 100-yard mark. On the season, Dye has 29 carries for 152 yards, Verdell has 30 carries for 149 yards, while Felix has 18 carries for 127 yards. 

There is no lead back, because there doesn't need to be. Instead, the Ducks have a true three-headed monster... and we haven't even talked about Sean Dollars or Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who have combined for 19 carries and 121 yards on the season.

Senior quarterback Justin Herbert said of his backfield mates, "It's a great problem to have so many of those guys. Each one of them can fill in. Shoot, we got four or five guys out there that we have complete trust and faith in. I know that they'll get the job done."

Offensive lineman Shame Lemieux, like Herbert, knows the Ducks are well-equipped to pound the ball. "Our running backs are incredible," said Lemieux.  "CJ's (Verdell) so fast and shifty. He's a stout runner, he's really ready to run downhill. I think Travis (Dye) is kind of a squirrely guy. He's just gonna take off like a little roadrunner... We're loaded, so I'm really happy to have that."

Now here is the scary part - The Ducks haven't even clicked yet. You see, we all know that even the best running backs need great offensive lines. They need the big guys up front to open up holes to give them running lanes. While the numbers say the Ducks have been successful in this regard, Lemieux thinks otherwise. 

"I don't think we've been doing a good enough job. I think we can even do better. Once we start playing to our standard I think it's going to open up even more and our running backs are gonna get more credit."

If this is how Oregon's three-headed monster looks when the offensive line isn't doing a good job, the Pac-12 should be terrified with what this running game will look like when Lemieux and Co. click. 

We'll see if they click on Saturday when they take on a Stanford defense that has allowed an average of 135.33 yards per game on the ground. Kickoff is set for 4:00 p.m. (PT) on The Farm.

LaMichael James' take on Oregon's Sean Dollars: Dangerous

LaMichael James' take on Oregon's Sean Dollars: Dangerous

The best recruiting class in Oregon football history is in Eugene and preparing for their first collegiate season. Hype surrounds the star-powered 2019 class looking to make an instant impact, including Sean Dollars, who has all the tools to have a stand out freshman season and develop into a starting running back before his time is up at Oregon.

He’s also caught the eye of former Duck running back star and Heisman Trophy candidate LaMichael James who believes Dollars is already “college ready.”

“I think he will be a special player once he gets his opportunity,” James said. “He’s the highest rated running back to come to Oregon since Jonathan Stewart. You pair that with the best offensive line Oregon probably has ever had and it could be a dangerous combo.”

Dollars is the highest rated running back on Oregon’s 2019 roster and the nation’s No.1 all-purpose back, per 247sports. He is one of three Mater Dei High School players to sign with Oregon in the 2019 class. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound special talent is praised for his versatility to be a workhorse, every-down type of back that can also catch the ball out of the backfield.

"Can do it all,” Coach Mario Cristobal said. “Line him up in the slot, line him up in the backfield, empty, wildcat — you name it, he can do it. Excellent as a kick returner, also."

But exactly how can the Ducks’ utilize Dollars and where does he fit on the depth chart?

2018 saw the emergence of Ducks duo CJ Verdell and Travis Dye, who will be excellent for years to come. Cyrus Habibi-Likio is poising himself for a breakout season and Darrian Felix had a strong spring showing before being sidelined by illness.

[READ:Underdog Ducks will beat Auburn: Oregon football prediction]

That’s enviable veteran experience, which creates a good problem for UO offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and running back coach Jim Mastro.

Should Dollars enter Oregon’s fall camp in peak physical and mental shape, he could be an elite addition to the backfield. James compared the potential blend of speed and power of the 2019 UO backfield to when he was a Duck (2009-11).

“Verdell is a downhill runner; north and south with force… I love how he runs,” James said.  “Dye is a slasher and a smooth transition from Verdell. Then you have Dollars who can be used in unique ways. (It reminds me of) me, Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff, who were all pretty exchangeable in backfield.”

Undoubtedly, Dollars’ elusiveness and versatility will make him a special player at Oregon. In the right role, Dollars’ could climb the depth chart and start his Duck career right away with a money freshman season.

Football players team up with Sabrina Ionescu for 3 vs. 3 basketball tournament

Football players team up with Sabrina Ionescu for 3 vs. 3 basketball tournament

Oregon athletes will be competing against each other in a 3 vs. 3 basketball tournament called Augusta Invitational.  

It appears that Oregon running back Darrian Felix, quarterback Tyler Shough and graduate transfer wide receiver Juwan Johnson have quite the fourth teammate: Oregon women’s basketball star Sabrina Ionescu is listed as the reserve for team “Ball So Hard University."

Offseason? What offseason? Ionescu can’t get enough basketball. The triple-double queen and Ruthy Hebard were also named to the USA 3x3 basketball tournament in Peru for the Pan American Games on July 27-29. 

Questionable to put Ionescu as a reserve... Last summer, Ionescu, Hebard, and Oregon teammates Oti Gildon and Erin Boley won the USA Basketball 3x3 national title in Colorado Springs. In May, Ionescu earned tournament MVP after helping to win the USA Basketball national title in Las Vegas.

Another intriguing aspect of this team: Johnson, who transfered from Penn State and could be quarterback Justin Herbert’s top target next season, is bonding with teammates and buying into Duck culture.

It’s a good sign that the receiver is connecting and creating relationships with Felix and Shough, who emerged as UO’s top backup quarterback this spring.

The “Ball So Hard University” squad also could play the “Tic Tacs” in the tournament: a team made up of Oregon wide receiver Brenden Schooler, tight ends Ryan Bay, Jake Breeland and “reserve” Kyle Buckner.

The “premiere tournament” will take place on July 13, according to Instagram.

Oregon Mailbag: Who is really calling plays? What's the deal with the horn?

Oregon Mailbag: Who is really calling plays? What's the deal with the horn?

Each week I will answer five of your best questions from Twitter or Instagram.

Who is really calling plays? Will that screeching horn continue to roar through Autzen Stadium? Which running backs will get the most touches? Plus, a look ahead to the toughest road game and how you can stay informed on all things Duck football related.

Question from Thurios on Twitter: Coach Cristobal has said he reserves the right to change a defensive or offensive play call by the respective coordinators. What criteria must occur to cause him to do that?

Answer: Co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt are Oregon's play callers. With that said, Cristobal meets with Arroyo and Leavitt throughout the week to help game plan, including game day to review and change any schemes and all situations. As head coach, he reserves his veto right. Therefore, the criteria for him to change a play is up to him.

 “I’m always on the headset with both sides because if there is a call that I feel really isn’t the best call for us at the time, then I’ll do whatever necessary to make sure we get the best call,” Cristobal said.

Question from Penny on Twitter: Will that horrible horn sound continue in Autzen?

Answer: According to 247 sports, the loud siren sound you may have heard blaring through Autzen stadium when the Duck defense faced a third down is taken from the horror movie, The Purge.

The idea to have the horn blasted on crucial downs came from the team, specifically defensive lineman Jordon Scott and defensive back Ugo Amadi, to alert the fans to get wild and loud. It also serves as an alert to the Duck defense that it’s time to bear down to get a stop.

I’ve seen the movie (it’s terrifying), so while it might take some getting used to, if the horn riles up the fans and team, I’m all for it. According to Eric Skopil’s report, the horn appears to be staying.

Question from Tyler on Twitter: Who separates themselves from the others at RB before Stanford? Which 3(ish) can we expect to get the majority of touches by month’s end?

Answer: It’s no secret that Oregon flexed its depth by spreading the ball out to all six of its scholarship running backs in its 58-24 victory over Bowling Green. Freshman CJ Verdell led the way with 51 yards, Cyrus Habibi-Likio was the only running back to score, while freshman Travis Dye was the first running back off the bench.

Going forward, will Oregon's stat line show six running back rushers? Not once Pac-12 conference play begins.

Yes, there is a plethora of talent, but expect the old man of the group to be the lead workhorse, “Grandpa” Tony Brooks-James. Behind Brooks-James, each back has a select skill set that could be used differently to game plan for opponents.

If I had to predict who will receive the majority of touches after Brooks-James, I’d say Verdell, Habibi-Likio and sophomore Darrian Felix. Verdell’s strength is his breakaway speed, Habibi-Likio is the largest back on the roster and uses his power to barrel through a defense, and Felix has the experience and explosive lateral quickness.

Question from NBCSportsNW on Twitter (my employer so I had to include!): Which Oregon football away game will be toughest for the Ducks to win?

Answer: Oregon plays at Cal (9/29), Washington State (10/20), Arizona (10/27), Utah (11/10) and Oregon State (11/23). Of those five away games I think Arizona is the most dangerous. The Ducks take on the Wildcats in Tucson on the second of back-to-back road games.

Yes the Wildcats did lose to BYU in their opener, but the duo of new coach Kevin Sumlin and dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate makes the Wildcats (7-6 last season) an intriguing team to watch this season.

Arizona returns its leading passer and rusher in Tate, who electrified with 1,591 passing yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 1,411 yards (9.2 per carry) and 12 touchdowns.

Question (from multiple people on Twitter): What kind of Duck TV coverage does NBC Sports NW plan on?

Answer: Talkin’ Ducks will be our weekly Oregon show. It airs at 7pm on Friday nights and is hosted by Jordan Kent, with me, Aaron Fentress and Joey Harrington as panelists.

If you are looking for supplemental Oregon coverage, I will be on the Brian Noe Radio show (Rip City Radio 620) at 1:45pm every Friday. Also, our website is jam packed with video and written content.

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

Oregon's rushing attack led by seven-headed monster

Who will be the next president of Running Backs University, also known as, Oregon Football? 

Turns out, No.24 Oregon (1-0) has a seven-headed monster leading its rushing attack. In the Ducks' 58-24 win over Bowling Green tonight, six running backs played and totaled 212 rushing yards with an average of five yards per rush.

Who makes seven? Quarterback Justin Herbert who finished with 41 rushing yards on six attempts.

Herbert was 10-of-21 for 281 yards passing with five touchdowns (an Oregon season opener record) and two interceptions.

"(Our running backs) are a young group that worked hard this offseason," Herbert said.  "I’ve got confidence in them.” 

Coach Mario Cristobal made a statement today in his first season opener as UO's head coach. The dominant victory removed the unease left by the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State in Crisotbal’s debut and set up the Ducks to dominate their nonconference opponents.

"We wanted to spread the ball out a little bit and give each guy a turn,” Crisotbal said. "For the most part (the running backs) had some pretty good success. Whatever form that works to keep moving the chains and scoring points, is what we are going to do."

Ready for the running back monster break down?

Redshirt freshman CJ Verdell led the Ducks with 51 yards on 13 carries and showed glimpses of his breakaway speed. 

Sophomore Darrian Felix barreled for 38 yards on eight attempts. He did not look afraid of contact, and his explosive lateral quickness makes him an intriguing option.

Freshman Travis Dye, who enrolled early at Oregon for spring football, rushed for 37 yards on seven attempts. He is the younger brother of UO junior linebacker, Troy Dye.

After the game, Troy Dye praised his younger brother’s first college football performance but also poked fun at his sibling. "At the end of the day he's still a bum," Dye said. 

Redshirt Senior Tony Brooks-James, who started the game, finished with 27 on five attempts. He utilized his explosiveness during one 15-yard run and on a 53-yard reception.  

Senior running back Taj Griffin only rushed once for four yards but took a screen pass from Herbert 83 yards for a touchdown. 

“We all know what Taj can do when he has some space," Cristobal said. 

Cyrus Habibi-Likio, a redshirt freshman, scored his first college touchdown and finished the game with five rushing yards on one attempt. 

“(Habibi-Likio) is a big power guy that can make things happen,” Cristobal said.

[WATCH: Cyrus Habibi-Likio, the next LeGarrette Blount?]

Going forward, will Oregon's stat line show seven rushers? Maybe not. But it sure did give reason for optimism for Oregon's power-tempo offense. 

Said Cristobal: “Will it be like that every single game? It’s hard to do that every single game.”

Oregon's RB situation has reached boy band status

Oregon's RB situation has reached boy band status

Oregon appears to be going with the boy band approach to the running back position. Oregon's depth chart lists redshirt senior Tony Brooks-James as the starter followed by the word, "situational" for the backup position. 

That's because the Ducks, who open the season Saturday at home against Bowling Green, have yet to identify a clear backup. The plan for now is to shuffle up to five other running backs in and out of the game: Redshirt freshman C.J. Verdell, sophomore Darrian Felix, senior Taj Griffin, redshirt freshman Cyris Habibi-Likio and freshman Travis Dye.  

"They all deserve to play," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. 

Adding to the madness is the fact that Brooks-James doesn't appear to have established himself as the clear No. 1 back, but instead he is the best among the group. Consequently, we could see as many as four to six running backs in a given game. 

This isn't good news for Oregon. The most successful boy bands of all time had a clear front man, such as Michael Jackson (Jackson 5) and Justin Timberlake (NSYNC). The same can be said about the most successful Oregon teams. One, maybe two running backs got the job done. Not five or six. You only roll with that many when you don't have a clear leader and maybe a sidekick.  

This is an unusual approach for the Ducks, or any other team for that matter.

For the first time since 2013, Oregon does not have a clear No. 1 running back. Oregon's front man the past four years, Royce Freeman, is now with Denver in the NFL, leaving the Ducks to use a running back by committee until someone emerges. Brooks-James is the starter, but Cristobal didn't make it sound like he is the clear top dog. 

"We've all seen through the years that he has flashed some greatness...," Cristobal said. "When we come off the sideline he deserves to be the first running back out there." 

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for your lead running back. It smacks of being loaded with reservations that Brooks-James is the go-to, 20-carry-per-game guy.

Oregon faced similar questions in 2013. That season, sophomore Byron Marshall rose to the occasion to rush for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. The following season, UO moved Marshall to wide receiver because the Ducks had Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Taj Griffin at running back.

Oregon has been set at the position ever since. Prior to 2013, the Ducks featured Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount, Jeremiah Johnson and Jonathan Stewart, dating back to 2006. 

Oregon would be quite pleased if Brooks-James performed this year as Marshall did in 2013. But it appears that that doesn't prove to be the case, Oregon is prepared to give a ton of players a chance to contribute. 

Having a glut of good running backs is not a bad thing when all is going well. It truly doesn't matter who is carrying the ball when the holes are huge and the offense is rolling. We saw that in 2016 when Royce Freeman went down at Nebraska but the trio of Kani Benoit, Brooks-James and Taj Griffin ran wild for a combined 205 yards.

But when Oregon needed a steady running back to grind out games against tougher opponents in Freeman's absence (or when he returned but was hindered by a bruised sternum), that guy was not to be found and it hurt Oregon.

The easiest part of being a running back is jolting through a huge hole. The toughest part is finding a couple of yards when they don't appear to be available. That's what made Johnson, Stewart, James, Barner and Freeman so great.  

Brooks-James failed to rise to the occasion in 2016 but did show flashes of being a great back. Now, two years older, he could be ready to answer the call. 

"I've never had (a back) that fast before, in my career," new UO running backs coach Jim Mastro said. "That's a strength. Obviously, when you can take the ball and any minute go 100 yards, 90 yards, that's unique. He's being a great leader. He's took on the role of trying to be the guy. He's done some really good thing."

Again, not exactly a clear declaration that Brooks-James is the man. 

Cristobal said he hopes that each running back's unique skills can help the team. Verdell is a good downhill runner. Dye can juke anyone with his jump cuts. Felix is an elite athlete. Habibi-Likio offers size. Griffin is a prove home run hitter. 

Splice them all together in a lab (the one we all know exists in the bowels of the Hattfield-Dowlin Complex) and Oregon would have the perfect running back. Right now, Oregon simply has a glut of talented backs backing up a senior yet to show that he can carry a team's rushing attack. 

Cristobal said that UO's up-tempo offense would provide plenty of opportunities (80-90 plays per game) for all of the backs to display their talents. The first three opponents, which includes Portland State and San Jose State, should provide easy victories and plenty of opportunities for Oregon to give all of its running backs a fair look. 

"They are all going to get their touches," Cristobal said. 

But once Pac-12 play starts, Oregon would be better off if the field behind Brooks-James has shrunk and he has established himself as the MJ or JT of the 2018 Oregon running game. 

Dazzling UO running backs: The locks, contenders and long shots

Dazzling UO running backs: The locks, contenders and long shots

Who will be the next president of Running Backs University?

Oregon football has an elite history of dazzling running backs. Jonathan StewartLegarrette BlountLaMichael JamesKenjon Barner and Royce Freeman; all 1,000-yard rushers. If we look even farther back, Reuben Droughns (1998-99) and Derek Loville (1986-89) also should be added to the list of all-time greats.

The past four seasons, Oregon could count on Freeman, who carried the bulk of the rushing load and holds Oregon’s career rushing yards record (5,621) and career touchdowns record (60).

[READ: FREEMAN SCORES AGAIN FOR DENVER BRONCOS]

Those are some pretty big cleats to fill. Here is a look into the locks, contenders and long shots at one of the most important UO positions.

LOCKS

Tony Brooks-James, senior: Enters his senior season with 2,375 career all-purpose yards with 1,557 rushing yards, 399 kick return yards and 319 receiving yards. Brooks-James landed on the Doak Walker award watch list following his second straight year with 1,000 all-purpose yards despite not being a full-time starter.

He’s a weapon on special teams and was the only Pac-12 player with a kickoff return for a touchdown in 2017.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said Brooks-James has bulked up about 12 pounds to 190 this season. He is listed as the second-fastest player in the country, according to both Bleacher Report and NFL.com. His increased size and fierce speed makes him the front-runner to win the starting nod at running back.

"I think that when you combine all of these factors and TBJ's want-to, and the realization that this is his senior year, he has created a better running back room," Cristobal said. 

Taj Griffin, senior: Listed as a running back after spending last season as slot receiver, it’s Griffin’s last UO season to shine. In his last two seasons, he’s had just 55 carries but has shown peeks into his lethal speed and playmaking ability.

In 2015 as a freshman, Griffin was the team's second option at running back and finished the year with 732 all-purpose yards, 570 yards rushing and three touchdowns.

“Taj is healthy, so he is in a real good place now,” Cristobal said. “He has worked his tail off and he’s going to be a significant part of our offense.”

[WATCH: A game of would you rather with UO QB Justin Herbert]

CJ Verdell, redshirt freshman: Coming off a productive offseason, Verdell showed off his breakaway speed in UO’s spring game. The three-star rushed for a team-high 44 yards on eight carries, scoring both of Oregon's two rushing touchdowns during the game.

UO coaches and teammates rave about Verdell’s power and toughness, and if not for an ankle injury, he may not have been redshirted last season. Verdell has been “dinged up” and missed a week of fall camp, but is expected to be available for Oregon’s opener against Bowling Green, according to Cristobal.

Verdell rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns at Mater Dei high school.

CONTENDERS

Cyrus Habibi-Likio, redshirt freshman: The 6-2, freshman is Oregon's tallest and heaviest running back. He’s listed at 207 pounds on the roster but is now weighing in at 215 pounds thanks to Coach Feld’s rigorous strength program. Expect him to be utilized as a heavier, power back and as a weapon on special teams. His goal is to create mismatches in the slot.

“Cyrus has got power, he’s fast and he’s got really good hands,” Cristobal said. “He’s a very instinctive player and he’s played defense so he is all over the field on special teams.”

Habibi-Likio models him game and looks up to former Oregon running back Legarrette Blount.

Darrian Felix, sophomore: Saw action in nine games last season as a true freshman. He carried the ball 30 times for 182 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scored once.

The 5-11, 191-pound sophomore is the only running back besides Brooks-James and Griffin with on-field experience. His explosive lateral quickness makes him an intriguing option. Felix has been practicing with a a non-contact red uniform but should be cleared in time for the opener.

LONGSHOTS

Travis Dye, freshman: Enrolled early at Oregon for spring football after rushing for 2,383 yards and 34 touchdowns as a high school senior at Norco High school in California. In the UO spring game, he rushed for 12 yards on five carries.

Dye has four older brothers that have played (or are playing) college football, including star Duck linebacker, Troy.

Dye has recently returned from injury and is full-go, he has seen some practice reps with the No.1 offense.

[READ: How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon]

Noah Dahl, sophomore: A walk-on from Silverton high school in Oregon. He led Silverton to the 5A state title game as a junior while being named to the All-State first team as a defensive back and kicker. As a senior running back he was named to the Class 5A All-State second team and the Mid-Willamette Conference first team.

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

Who will Herbert sling the ball to? The Locks, Contenders and Longshots at receiver

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

Oregon's promising 2017 season ended with a wild two weeks that saw Willie Taggart depart for Florida State, coach Mario Cristobal take over the program, recruits decommit left and right and then the Ducks fall flat during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, the 2018 season could see Oregon return to Pac-12 prominence. That is, if a lot of variables play out in the Ducks' favor. We will take a position-by-position look at the team to discuss what must happen in order for Oregon to rise again in 2018. 

Other position entries: QuarterbackRunning backsReceivers/Tight endsOffensive lineDefensive backs; LinebackersDefensive line.   

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Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges. 

Key departures: Senior Royce Freeman moved on to the NFL after breaking nearly every school record imaginable.  Versatile senior backup Kani Benoit is also gone.  

Projected 2017 starter: Tony Brooks-James, RSr., (5-9, 175),

Key backups: Darrian Felix, Soph., (5-11, 178); C.J. Verdell, RFr., (5-8, 192); Taj Griffin, Sr., (5-11, 178); Cyrus Habibi-Likio, RFr., (6-0, 208). 

What we know: Freeman is gone. Let's all take a moment to reflect on his greatness.

Now, let's take a moment to reflect on what his absence could mean for Oregon.

Yikes!

Then toss in the loss of Benoit. 

Double yikes!

Oregon hasn't lost this much running back talent in one offseason since maybe ever. But, in typical Oregon tradition, there is a potentially great running back waiting in the wings. 

Brooks-James has rushed for 1,557 yards in his career on 226 carries (5.9 per carry) and has scored 14 rushing touchdowns. If he managed to put up those same numbers in one season, the Ducks will be in business. 

Essentially, Oregon needs Brooks-James to become the next Kenjon Barner, who after backing up LaMichael James for three seasons, rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior in 2012. 

What we don't know: Can Brooks-James be that guy? And, will he truly need to?

At a listed 178 pounds, it might be a lot to ask of James to carry the ball 20 times per game and survive the season. If he isn't up to the task, the Ducks do have options, albeit of the unproven variety. 

Felix saw minimal time as a freshman and gained 182 yards. The real wild card is Verdell, who by all accounts is the next great UO running back in waiting. He redshirted in 2017 due to injuries and ample depth already in place. 

We can't ignore Griffin, who was moved to wide receiver last season but still received some carries. He has 848 career rushing yards in his career on 6.1 yards per carry. 

Habibi-Likio has a lot of ground to make up on the depth chart in order to crash the rotation next season. But he does offer more bulk at 208 pounds than every other running back, except maybe Verdell, who packs 192 pounds on his 5-8 frame.  

What must happen for Oregon to contend: Clearly, Oregon must be able to run the ball well in order to succeed. Ideally, the Ducks will have a clear No. 1 back, and that man should be Brooks-James. But he doesn't have to match the level of play displayed in the past by the likes of Jonathan Stewart, James, Barner or Freeman. Brooks-James could simply be what Byron Marshall was in 2013 when he rushed for 1,068 yards and 14 touchdowns while Thomas Tyner chipped in 711 rushing yards and De'Anthony Thomas went for 594. 

If Oregon gets that type of production out of its top three running backs in 2018, the Ducks will be just fine. 

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 3)...: Someone compliments WR Dillon Mitchell. 

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

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USA Today

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman made what had to be a tough decision for him to sit out Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. 

He made the wise decision, even though it might appear to be selfish on the surface. 

"This is hard for him, now," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said today prior to practice at Bishop Gorman High School. "This is not an easy thing for a guy like that."

Freeman, who practiced with the team on Wednesday, was not made available for comment today.

Freeman leaves Oregon as its all-time leading rusher (5,621 yards) and the Pac-12 Conference's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (60). He has given 947 carries to the program, a total that's also a record. Going out a winner in a bowl game was probably enticing for Freeman but the risk of injury isn't worth the reward. Few will remember or care who won the Vegas Bowl within days after it ends. An injury could hinder Freeman, projected to go in the third or fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, for the rest of his career. 

Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby would be wise to follow suit. Cristobal said Crosby would announce his intentions on Friday. Projected by many to be a first-round pick, Crosby could literally be risking $10 million or more by playing in the Vegas Bowl. A serious injury could knock him out of the first round and into the later rounds, as it did former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who tore an ACL during practice prior to the 2014 Rose Bowl. He ended up getting drafted in the seventh round and never fully regained health in his knee. He is now out of the NFL. 

NFL-bound players electing to not play in their team's bowl game is a growing trend. Former Last season, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and LSU running back Leonard Fournette sat out their respective team's bowl games. 

Cristobal is not in favor of this development. 

"I like to see key players play," Cristobal said. 

That doesn't mean he isn't with Freeman on his decision. 

"Am I disappointed in him? No, I'm not," Cristobal asked. "Do I want to see him play? Absolutely. But I stand by him just like I gave him my word and I don't break my word for nobody."

Cristobal said the entire team backs Freeman, as they should 

"They understand that this family thing is not just talk," Cristobal said. "This family thing is real. This family will stick together, support each other and we'll press forward."

Oregon's running game should be just fine on Saturday. When Freeman went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter against California on Sept. 30 the Ducks still won 45-24 and rushed for 328 yards and six touchdowns.

In 2016, after Freeman went down with a foot injury at Nebraska, the Ducks managed to rush for 336 yards and five touchdowns. Crosby was lost for the season in that game. 

Interestingly, following practice offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo met with the media and when asked about Freeman's decision said that he was unaware of the situation. 

"It's unfortunate," he said. "Obviously, Royce is such a big part of who we area. But guys are going to made decisions based on the betterment for their life. Royce has done an awesome job for us. We're going to miss him...but just like when he went down, we have to find a way to pull together."

The Ducks will lean on senior Kani Benoit, redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James, who will likely be next year's top back, junior Taj Griffin and freshman Darrian Felix. 

There is plenty of talent there to win with making Freeman's decision ever more on the mark as being the right move for his future. 

Desperate Ducks running out of time to find answers

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USA Today

Desperate Ducks running out of time to find answers

PASADENA, Calif. - The Oregon Ducks left Southern California on Saturday a desperate football team, and their coach, Willie Taggart, departed as a man searching in vain for answers following a 31-14 to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. 

Three consecutive lopsided losses by the combined score of 113-31 have made it clear that this young and battered team is all but incapable of producing a winning product without starting quarterback Justin Herbert, who has missed three games with a broken collarbone. 

There is plenty of blame to go around. Select any section of the team and you could find fault within. But the bottom line is that all of the team's woes can be linked right back to the absence of Herbert. 

The offense, aside from the yard-churning play of senior running back Royce Freeman, is a disaster. The defense, brilliant at times, isn't skilled or wise enough to carry a team in such a high-scoring conference. 

All of these realities left Taggart somewhat exasperated while he explained mistake after mistake made by his young quarterback, freshman Braxton Burmeister, and the rest of the team.

“Those are the headaches that you get right now," Taggart said in a frustrated tone. "But, you understand that it’s going to get better."

If it doesn't in a hurry, Oregon (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) could miss a bowl game for the second consecutive season. The Ducks need two victories to reach six and become eligible. Right now, three of the team's four remaining games appear to be imminently losable without Herbert. 

It shouldn't be possible that one player could mean so much to a team. Even in 2015 when the Ducks lost quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., they managed to score 140 points over three games with backup Jeff Lockie as the starter. Taggart would give almost anything right now for that type of offensive production. 

The positive sign Saturday was that the team certainly looked better than it did during a 49-7 loss at Stanford last week. Burmeister, who passed for 23 yards against the Cardinal, connected on some promising throws on Saturday but still amassed just 74 yards through the air. UCLA knew the Ducks couldn't throw well and stacked up against Freeman, who gained 160 yards on 29 punishing carries to become the program's all-time career leading rusher

Oregon fell behind 14-0 before Burmeister manufactured two scoring drives that required 15 plays each and ended with him scoring on the ground. Such long drives covering 6:03 and 5:16 were a departure for UO. But it worked and gave the Ducks hope. In the second half, however, the mistakes resurfaced. Drives died. UCLA (4-3, 2-3) added some scores and that was that.

“We can’t do that to ourselves," Taggart said of the miscues. "I think for us, we’ve got to play cleaner and smarter, all around.”

Especially when you don't have a quarterback that can make plays. Oregon, and most teams for that matter, is not capable of playing so perfectly that they can overcome not having a playmaker at quarterback. The Ducks had to be nearly perfect against a team led by a vastly superior quarterback in Josh Rosen, held to a reasonable 266 yards passing and two touchdowns. 

Taggart said the team entered the game with three goals they needed to reach in order to win the game: Don't turn the ball over. Force turnovers. Reduce penalties. They only accomplished the latter, committing just three for 15 yards after entering the game averaging 10.2 per game, while coughing up two turnovers and forcing zero. 

The fumble was committed by freshman running back Darrian Felix on the Ducks' opening drive and converted into a touchdown. The interception came in the third quarter with the Ducks trailing 24-14. The receiver on the play, Taggart said, ran the wrong route but Burmeister forced a pass deep to him anyway. His underthrown ball ended up in the hands of UCLA cornerback Colin Samuel. 

“We’re taking our lumps right now with a lot of these young guys playing but those guys will continue to get better and we’ll find a way,” Taggart said. 

The biggest positive, according to Taggart, was that his team fought back from being down 14-0 in the first quarter to tie the game at halftime. 

“I thought our guys showed a lot of fight,” Taggart said.

However, when things went south in the second half, so did the team's resolve. 

“Right now I think from a mental standpoint we have to get ourselves right, staying positive, especially when things go wrong," Taggart said. 

When asked if Herbert could return next week at home against Utah, Taggart said he had no idea. Notice that he didn't say "no."

If Herbert returns, the Ducks would have a strong chance to win at least two more games and become bowl eligible. But that is hardly a given. If he remained out until the Ducks host Arizona (4-2, 2-1) on Nov. 18, UO would be in serious jeopardy of not reaching a bowl game for the second consecutive season. 

That certainly was not the plan when Taggart took over for Mark Helfrich, fired last winter. Starting quarterback or no starting quarterback, Taggart was expected to at least get the Ducks back to the postseason. A lot must change in order for that to happen. 

“I believe in this team and love this team and I feel like this team will get it corrected," Taggart said. "We’ve just got to stay the course, stay positive and find the way.”

The opportunities to do so are drying up quickly.