Ducks on the Run: A Deep Dive Into the 2019 Oregon Football Rushing Attack

CORVALLIS, OREGON - NOVEMBER 23: Running back Travis Dye #26 of the Oregon Ducks runs the ball for a touchdown during the second half of the game against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on November 23, 2018 in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
CORVALLIS, OREGON - NOVEMBER 23: Running back Travis Dye #26 of the Oregon Ducks runs the ball for a touchdown during the second half of the game against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on November 23, 2018 in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

The state of the Oregon football run-game is ever-changing, but with the right personnel, Marcus Arroyo and Mario Cristobal will find their identity—somewhere between power and finesse.

Since the beginning of the modern era of Oregon football—and even in this weird post-modern purgatory we find ourselves in today—the Ducks have generated their identity by running the football.

Nationally-recognized ground games that were headlined by multiple 1,000-yard rushers, Heisman candidates, and future NFL rushing record holders helped to define even the earliest iterations of the spread offense—from Bellotti and beyond.

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The book on Oregon for so long, however, was that they were all about speed. And they absolutely were. They weren’t running up the gut. They weren’t pounding defenses down after down with three yards and a cloud of dust. They had the types of generational athletes, like DAT and Kenjon, that were fast enough to hit the edge and blow past you. And they had guys that were so balanced and patient, like J-Stew and LaMike, that could wait until just the right moment to burst through holes that were made by ~smaller~, but more dynamic offensive lines that worked within blocking within some of the most active schemes in the country, at the time.

The unique skill sets of the height of the RBU-era at Oregon made Bellotti, and the dolphin-brained Chip Kelly, salivate over the complex reads and sheer space they were able to work with. They defined Oregon as the school of speed. That’s obviously what put the Ducks on the map.

During the Helf and Taggart “eras”, the collective identity of the program became—for lack of a better word—amorphous. Caught between unprecedented success and often unsustainable expectation, the Ducks were in the dark.

Enter Mario Cristobal 

With a supreme, Saban-esque focus and a very specific kind of South Beach swagger, Cristo is on the cusp of completely shifting Oregon from a speed school, to a program that’s all about power.

That was what last year was all about. Our offensive line was notably beefy, imposing, and coached up by Mario himself. In the Washington and Stanford games, the Ducks proved that they knew exactly where the A-Gap was, and they hit it time and time again.

The Marcus Arroyo-implemented pistol attack seemed to marry the speedy shotgun of Chip’s spread, with the kind of downhill, up-the-gut running that Cristobal was designing his offensive line to work best for.

When it worked, it literally won games.

When it didn’t work, it was stagnant, gross, and caused some of the worst in-fighting between Oregon twitter since the less-than-halcyon days of Helf.

Most folks pointed to the play calling. Arroyo was calling the same dives and draws right up the middle over and over, even when the o-line clearly wasn’t getting the same kind of push those runs demanded.

Where were the zone-reads of yesteryear?

Were we aware that we could stretch outside the hashmarks?

There were a lot of questions, and many alarmists were quick to decide that the answer to all of it was that Arroyo should be fired from his post as OC. Some people just suggested that he be relieved of play calling duties, but the main thesis was that, “Arroyo is the problem.”

I’m not here to defend Arroyo’s play calling, or to denounce any fan that makes a suggestion—albeit drastic—over twitter.

There has been more turnover within the coaching staff at Oregon in the last 4 years than in the previous 40, so I think it’s probably justified to be 1) desensitized to making a change like that and 2) not being sure if we’ve really even found the right guy yet.

But while the play calling can and should certainly improve, I think the real issue was that Oregon’s 2018 roster just didn’t yet fit with the direction that Cristobal & Co. were steering the ship in.

Earth, Wind, Fire, and Felix

As fall camp kicks into high-gear, and we turn to our look at our loaded backfield and preseason o-line watchlists, Cristobal’s master plan is beginning to take shape in ways that could make the growing pains of 2018 a little less painful—in retrospect.

The first thing that’s clear is that even with the loss of Tony Brooks-James, our stable of running backs looks far more seasoned and experienced than last year.

Presumptive RB1, CJ Verdell, and human cannonball, Travis Dye, will get to further their development as a two-headed monster, and with the expectation that they will shed any and all of their freshman/redshirt freshman jitters.

Verdell and Dye proved last year that they’re totally capable of bruising their way through a power running scheme, but they’ve also got speed to burn. Dye especially has the kind of speed that—if refined just a bit—could make outside runs feel a lot more possible.

When paired with the similarly-sized and similarly-speedy Darrian Felix, I have a hunch (read: hope) that Arroyo will be way more inclined to dust off that section his playbook titled “stretch runs.”

“Line Makin’ Gaps Bigger than the Grand Canyon”

At the same time that our ball carriers are coming into their own, so too is Cristobal’s nationally-touted offensive line.

I know that I’ve already roared the praises of this veteran-riddled squad of big boys on here, but to talk about the run-game without mentioning the o-line would be like talking about John Wooden’s UCLA teams without mentioning that he was complicit in providing improper benefits to his star players.

My least-hot hot take of this preseason is that Throckmorton and Sewell will both be named first team all-conference, but we all know that’s not anywhere close to the ceiling for this group.

They’ll produce two 1,000-yard rushers, impose their will over an SEC opponent on the national stage, and along the way they’ll take the final step in re-writing the decades-long narrative that, “oReGoN dOeSn’T pLaY BiG-bOy foOtBaLL.”

Three Quick Hits:

somewhereinamerica, Cyrus is Still Workin’

I can’t overlook how vital of a role that Cyrus Habibi-Likio could end up playing as the enforcer/vulture in short-yardage situations. For all of my desire to see some more finesse and outside runs enter into the Ducks 2019 repertoire, the o-line is that much more equipped to get the type of push that every punishing power rush needs.

In the Spring Game, Habibi-Likio proved that he deserves to get big-time touches, so while I would hate to reduce him to merely the “Earth” to Dye’s “Wind” and Verdell’s “Fire”, Cristobal can definitely get his fix of punishing power runs with Cyrus’ 222-pound frame to strike fear in nose guards everywhere.

For some bonus beef:

Four-star freshman, Jayvaun Wilson, weighs in at around 225-lbs., but he’ll most likely redshirt this year. If he doesn’t end up transferring due to the logjam of backs ahead of him, the Ducks will have even more power in their future.

Dollars Bills, Y’all

With Verdell, Dye, Habibi-Likio, and Felix all set to see the field this season (in that order), it’d be pretty easy to forget that Mario just reigned in Sean Dollars, the nation’s top all-purpose back from Mater Dei. With the new NCAA redshirt rules in play, we’ll be able to see Dollars in four games this season without burning a year of eligibility behind such a stacked group of ball carriers.

Be sure to look for him to make an appearance against a couple of the cupcakes like Nevada, Montana, or Oregon State.

Lots of Slots

Even as they’ve made the shift towards power, the Ducks stayed true to their time-honored tradition of utilizing versatile slot receivers in the backfield. DAT did it best, but if there’s a player on the roster right now that has already proven that he knows how to find the edge and accelerate, it’s Jaylon Redd.

Redd is sure to continue his role in sweep plays from the slot, and I’m sure he’ll even make a handful of appearances lining up in the pistol. Mycah Pittman has also been spending fall camp primarily in the slot position, and with the kind of yards-after-catch ability he showed in the Spring Game, I can guarantee you that he’ll take one or two handoffs the distance on his way to a Josh Huff-like freshman campaign.

Go Ducks.