With offseason departures at RB for Oregon, Byron Cardwell's time is now
A name to know not just in Eugene, but more than likely throughout the Pac-12 as we head into the new season: Byron Cardwell.
Don’t go shooting expectations through the roof just yet, but Oregon might have another very capable lead back waiting in the wings.
This was, by most objective measures, a potent rushing offense in 2021.
Oregon ran the ball more often than it threw the ball, though not to a degree that would suggest one-sided play-calling. On first downs, the Ducks ran it 58% of the time. They didn’t give up a ton of negative plays, they did well to stay in standard downs (71.6%), and they were strong in short-yardage situations.
The Ducks ranked sixth nationally in stuff rate, seventh in power success rate, and ninth in line yards per carry. (All defined here.)
Even with all the…stuff…going on with the passing game, to be able to run the ball that effectively means your offense is going to have a pretty high floor. And, yes, sometimes numbers lie, but numbers that strong don’t tend to be too misleading. Oregon was one of the country’s better offenses when it came to turning scoring chances (trips beyond the opponent’s 40-yard-line) into points. The Ducks’ 4.6 points per opportunity average on the season ranked 13th in the country, nearly a full point above the national average (3.8).
Personnel-wise, Oregon had the goods to make the offense run well.
Travis Dye and CJ Verdell were excellent when healthy. Dye averaged 6 yards a carry on the season and put up the second-most rushing yards of any Pac-12 player. And the Oregon offensive line was one of the better-graded run-blocking units in football, per PFF. A 75.7 grade as a unit was good, not great, but inside the top third of all Power Five ball clubs.
One-half of that rushing attack returns for the 2022 season.
The offensive line is bringing back more than just about any other FBS team. Four of the team’s five starters from the Alamo Bowl will return. Ryan Walk will come back healthy. Oregon just signed blue-chip 2022 lineman Dave Iuli, who probably doesn’t start Year 1 but should still add depth and up the competition levels along the line. In total, the Ducks are returning 85.2% of offensive line snaps from the 2021 season, the eighth-highest percentage in the country per The Action Network. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s a top-15 or so unit in the country next season.
So the guys creating holes for Oregon’s rushers are back. The guys running through those holes need replacing. Dye has transferred to USC. Verdell has moved on to the NFL. Collectively, those two produced over 6,000 yards rushing during the last four seasons at Oregon. That’s a lot. They gave the Ducks a legitimate option in the receiving game. Verdell was pretty serviceable in pass-protection.
They’re not players you easily replace.
But all signs point to Oregon continuing to be a run-dominant outfit. New offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham deploys a spread-out, run-focused attack that sets up aggressive shot plays down the field. Dillingham’s past suggests he’s not afraid to go Wildcat or put his quarterback under center, and Ducks fans can expect to see two-back sets with some frequency.
Head coach Dan Lanning has said that tempo will be part of Oregon’s offensive approach moving forward, but it won’t be an end-all, be-all.
“There’s two things I think people don’t realize: it’s one thing to go fast, it’s another thing to be fast and efficient, and we want to be fast and efficient,” Lanning said. “We don’t want to just be fast. That’s something that Coach Dillingham has great experience in.”
You can’t really set up tempo until you get that first first down, and if you’re not stringing together successful plays, tempo is just going to hurt you.
Oregon prioritized adding more talent to the backfield of late, pursuing (and ultimately missing on) Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard and then going hard after the signature of 4-star running back Jordan James. The latter effort paid off with a day-of commitment from James. “I’m pretty jacked to get Jordan,” Lanning said Wednesday. But, he also added that “I feel really great about the guys we have in that group right now, and Jordan obviously enhances that moving forward.”
Byron Cardwell, step on up.
You don’t really like to lose players to conference foes via the portal, but successful programs feature player churn as a byproduct. And if you’re doing well on the trail and you trust your evaluations, attrition begets opportunity.
Cardwell is part of an interesting group of players around the league this offseason who has a chance to really take that next step.
As a former 4-star back and Top247 prospect coming out of the 2021 class, Cardwell arrived with a ton of pub. But given who was in front of him on the depth chart, opportunities were few and far between his first year on campus. But he practiced hard and gave the coaching staff reason to trust him in games.
When he was given his first real chance of the season against Colorado, he responded with 127 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He had 98 yards and two scores on nine carries against Washington State two weeks later. Consistency was a question but it usually is with all freshmen.
Still, Cardwell finished the season with 417 rushing yards and three scores on 61 carries. Among Power Five backs with at least 50 rushing attempts last season, only three guys had a better per-carry average than Cardwell. He had an absurd explosive run rate (10-plus yards) of 24.6%, the eighth best among all FBS runners with at least 50 attempts.
He runs well into contact. A 6-foot, 210-pound runner as a freshman, he already looks like a guy who can run between the tackles with some success, but he still has the elusivness and the hands to work out of Oregon’s passing game. Those all mean good things for Dillingham.
As this new coaching staff settles in, and as spring ball gets underway, Cardwell could certainly prove to be a wonderful surprise.
And if the promise he showed during his first season is any indication, departures at running back might become a positive for everyone involved.