Originally published at SDFNL Magazine

Story by Eric Williams

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Last season in the October edition of SDFNL Magazine, we featured Helix High School running back Nate Stinson. The 2015 KUSI Silver Pigskin Finalist was about to lead the Highlanders on a San Diego County CIF Open Division Championship ride that would culminate with Stinson scoring 5 touchdowns and rushing for 246 yards with 76 yards receiving in the title game vs. St. Augustine. Stinson finished the season with over 2,000 yards rushing and 35 TDs ending his career at Helix with right at 4,000 total yards of offense and 60 touchdowns. In another San Diego community located just 10 miles from the Mexican Border at Baja California; a 5’9” 195-pound Junior running back from Mater Dei High School was having as big of a statistical season as Stinson.

Originally known as Marian Catholic from 1960 to 2006, Mater Dei is a private, Roman Catholic high school in Chula Vista. The Crusaders football program has a record of 58-46 since 2007. Led by head coach John Joyner who began his tenure at Mater Dei in 2009, the school has a 46-22 record and five straight CIF playoff appearances since 2011. Under Coach Joyner, the 2016 Crusaders are coming off back-to-back Divsion-4 championships and are the first ever San Diego high-school football team to be moved up two divisions after a single season. The Crusaders smashed Reedley Immanuel 56 to 21 in the 2015 State Championship game, and Immanuel football coach Matt Armstrong had high praise for the 16-year old kid wearing the #5 jersey, Mater Dei’s featured back. “Their tailback is phenomenal. With him in the backfield, you really have to honor that aspect of their game,” said Armstrong. “You don’t see kids like that at the small schools level too often. I would venture to say that you don’t see that anywhere up and down the state.”

CJ Veredell – 5′ 9″ 195 lb

He’s been featured on ABC-10 San Diego, the KUSI Prep Pigskin Report, San Diego Prep Insider, the Mighty 1090, and the San Diego Union Tribune all within the past six months, but there is one play in particular that symbolizes the next-level potential college scouts have come to discover about CJ (Christopher Junior) Verdell. In the final week of the 2015 regular season, Verdell broke through the Mar Vista defense for a 99-yard touchdown run en route to a 48-7 Mater Dei victory. After eluding a lineman in the end zone, Verdell broke a tackle at the one-yard line, and another at the two, then lowered his shoulder and drilled a Safety onto his back at the ten, spinning and tip-toeing just inches from the sideline at the fifteen, juking a defender at the twenty-five, finishing with one final burst of speed all the way to the house. But that run isn’t the only thing that will define CJ Verdell’s football career at Mater Dei. When his senior year has finished, Verdell will be remembered as one of the best high school running backs in San Diego County history.

week-1-cj-verdell-2While missing the first four games of his sophomore season after breaking a bone in his foot late in the summer, Verdell also had a hip injury that limited his playing time, and he spent some time healing an ankle injury as well. Nevertheless, Verdell gave us a preview of his quickness breaking free for runs of 53 and 57 yards during that 2014 season. After a lot of intense physical therapy, he was poised to come back stronger and fitter than ever in 2015. Proving that hard work pays off, Verdell broke off runs of 65, 62, 80, 75, 84, 99, 56, 50, 65, and 66 yards during his junior season, racking up 2,677 total yards of offense and 34 touchdowns. During week five of 2015, he torched the Bishop’s high school defense for 381 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on just 21 carries. Against El Capitan in week three, Verdell rushed for 185 yards and matched that rushing total versus Sweetwater in week 9.

The speedy running back is battle tested in big time games too. Averaging 160 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, Verdell lit Kearny up for 225 yards rushing in the 2015 CIF quarterfinals, hammered Mar Vista for 162 rushing yards in the semi-finals, and ran over Notre Dame High School for 196 yards rushing in the State Regional Final. Finishing with 2,135 yards rushing (12.6 yards per carry) and 28 touchdowns to go along with 15 receptions, 278 yards receiving and 5 touchdowns, Verdell led his team to a Division-4 San Diego Section CIF Championship and a Division V-AA State Championship en route to what “technically” was a perfect 15-0 season. Verdell also finished the 2015 season with 262 kick-return yards and a return touchdown to go along with 22 tackles and 2 INTs.

dsc_6148Mater Dei High School and San Diego County Football fans were eager to see what Verdell would accomplish in 2016, and five games into his senior year Verdell has burned opposing defenses for 901 yards rushing, close to 100 yards receiving and 18 total touchdowns. Already with runs of 84, 62, 50, 49, and 52 yards this season, Verdell told San Diego Union Tribune freelance writer Don Norcross that he wanted to win another State Championship and challenge the San Diego CIF rushing record set by Dillon Baxter in 2009. Often labeled as a speed-back, Verdell is built much like a power-back. Now in his senior year, Verdell can squat close to 500 pounds, and bench press 305 while his 40-yard dash time is right at 4.5. Verdell says that his father has helped him with constant weight training and with planning a better diet, which in turn has helped CJ achieve more lean muscle. “My dad’s had a big impact on me,” Verdell told Norcross. “I get a lot of my work ethic from him.”

Verdell’s father Christopher is a Navy lieutenant commander, and it’s nothing but business and the weight room as Christopher posted on Twitter one day this past Summer: “CJ’s 5:30 A.M. weight training. No substitute for off-season strength gains. #WinTheDay.” On January 5, 2016 Under the Radar published a seven-minute highlight film of Verdell to their YouTube channel that now has over 11,000 views. On Jan 22, 2016, Verdell picked up his first full ride D1 offer from Southern Utah. Offered by almost every team in the Pac-12 since that day, Verdell stands at sixteen total D1 offers and has made a verbal commitment to Oregon after making an unofficial visit to the Ducks’ annual spring game on April 30. A humble person on and off the field, I got the chance to meet Verdell and his parents after Mater Dei’s big win over Mission Hills this past week. His family is kind, compassionate, and they care deeply about their son’s education and athletic career. “God has blessed CJ, and we are very grateful for his accomplishments,” Verdell’s father told me.

img_1704Like other great running backs, CJ Verdell has power, speed, great vision, and cuts that are subtle and precise. Able to long jump almost 24 feet, Verdell has great leaping ability as well. If you get a chance to see him play in person, he is a lot like Nate Stinson was in the sense that entire defensive game plans revolve around the fear of big runs by Verdell. For all the old timers like me, Verdell’s size and running style will remind you of three-time Super Bowl Champion Emmitt Smith who played for the Dallas Cowboys and shined in college at Florida. For the younger guys, Verdell’s game is very similar to that of 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram who played his college ball at Alabama and is now with the New Orleans Saints as their primary running back. Also a great option in the passing game just like both of those backs, Verdell runs hard and with balance, redistributing his body weight to make adjustments. That makes him very hard to tackle…IF you can catch him.

You can follow CJ Verdell on Twitter @Cjverdell_

You can follow Eric Williams on Twitter @WBKsports