Walk-on Running Backs Have Been 'Pleasant Surprise' During Oregon Spring Football

Cross Patton and Aaron Smith have turned heads this spring.
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Oregon running backs coach Jim Mastro had high praise for his group after the Ducks’ eighth spring practice Saturday. He said that this is the best chemistry, both on the team and in the running back room, in his three years at Oregon.

“It’s just a different feeling and a different vibe in the locker room and on the practice field,” Mastro said. “It’s something that I think is very special.”

CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are expected to carry the load in the run game, but walk-ons Cross Patton and Aaron Smith have impressed Mastro so far in spring camp.

“Cross Patton has probably had the best camp of all these guys just because we’ve asked him to take a lot of reps,” Mastro said.

“He’s probably the toughest guy on our team. He’s a good player, tough kid, smart kid, and not afraid to throw his body in there.”

Patton, a 5’6”, 160-pound redshirt freshman from Atlanta, redshirted in 2019 and did not record a carry in 2020, but could see his first action this season with injuries to Sean Dollars and Trey Benson. Dollars is recovering from a leg injury suffered just before spring football, and Benson is expected to be back at full speed “very soon” according to Mastro.

Smith, a 5’10”, 205-pound freshman from San Jose, could also see carries in the backfield.

“We've got Aaron Smith, who was a walk-on, who's actually a pleasant surprise for us so far in camp,” Mastro said.

Mastro said that Verdell and Dye must “elevate their game” this season, despite being the leaders in the running back room. Verdell struggled with injuries off and on last season, and Dye stepped up, leading the Ducks in rushing yards and proving to be a threat to score every time he touched the ball.

“Travis had an unbelievable year last year,” Mastro said. “He’s got to capitalize on that and have a better year this year.”

Verdell ripped off a 67-yard touchdown on the first play of practice Saturday, certifying that he is healthy and prepared for a bounce-back season.

“CJ Verdell is the best back in the country,” Mastro said. “CJ is as dynamic as they come, and he is a complete package.”

The Ducks will have to replace Boise State-bound Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who was a significant piece of their run game the last three seasons. He was the primary back in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and Mastro said that he expects both Verdell and Dye to fill that gap.

2021 running back signees Seven McGee and Byron Cardwell are expected to enroll in the summer, giving the Ducks more depth in the backfield.

Mastro noted several improvements from his group after Saturday’s practice, including their blocking and pass-catching ability. He also commended the improvement of the offensive line.

“Those guys are playing really well right now,” Mastro said of the offensive line. “It’s a remarkable improvement because it’s the same group [as last year].”

The Ducks are more than halfway through spring football, and Mastro is loving the process.

"This is probably the funnest spring I’ve had in my 31 years,” the running backs coach said.“These kids are so much fun to have and be around. They’re never satisfied.”

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