Oregon Football: The Disappearance of Royce Freeman
Oregon Ducks Running Back Royce Freeman has become a non-factor after entering the season with high expectations.
The start of the 2016 Oregon football season was fraught with uncertainty. After a disappointing season in 2015, questions swirled around the program heading into this year.
Would we see massive improvement on the Defensive side of the ball now that Brady Hoke had been brought in? (somehow, no) How would the offensive line fare after losing so many starters? Would another gamble on an FCS transfer QB pay off? And while the questions where many the one area that Duck fans knew they didn’t need to worry about was the running back position. And in particular, junior running back Royce Freeman.
Coming into the season the team knew with absolute certainty what it had in their star running back. A stud. A 230lb bruiser that could just as easily run over hapless defenders as he could outrun them. Freeman entered the season as #3 on Oregon’s all-time leading rusher lists, having amassed over 3,000 yards the two years prior. One of the best running backs in the nation with an outside (way outside) chance at the Heisman trophy. Royce Freeman entered the 2016 season with all the tools necessary to become an Oregon Ducks legend.
And for the first couple games of the season it looked as though Freeman would become just that.
He got off to a great start by running for 87 yards on 11 carries against UC Davis. And then following that up by running for 207 yards on 22 carries against Virginia. An average of 9.9 yards a carry. During the Virginia game Freeman passed Kenjon Barner as the 2nd all time rusher in Oregon history and looked as though he just might finish the season by passing LaMichael James all time record of 2 billion yards.
But in the 1st quarter of the Nebraska game Freeman went down with an injury. He would finish the game with only 31 yards on 5 attempts. Freeman sat out the loss to Colorado but returned to the starting lineup against Washington State. All seemed right with the world (at least for Freeman) as he ran for 138 yards, an avg of 7.7 ypc despite the team’s losing effort. But if Freeman appeared to be back to his normal self and his injury healed it was a deceiving appearance. A mirage. As over the next 2 games Freeman would put up horrible numbers and see his role overtaken by Tony Brooks-James (if not on the depth chart, certainly in appearance and productivity)
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In the embarrassing loss to Washington, a time when the team needed the reliability of Royce Freeman the most, he ran for a paltry 50 yards. The next week against Cal, Freeman put up an atrocious performance, running for just 10 yards, averaging a horribly 0.7ypc. He looked slow and uncertain in the backfield, shying away from contact and being chased down from behind while trying to gain an outside edge versus finding a hole and running upfield. Freeman was tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage more often than not. After the game Freeman seemed none too pleased to be fielding questions from reporters. Providing abrupt one word answers and brushing off questions of any lingering injury.
It’s possible that Freeman has just checked out. That he knew all along this would be his last year and after the injury against Nebraska he’s not very eager to take hard hits and jeopardize his future and lucrative pay day in the NFL.
Oregon’s practice of not disclosing injuries has long been a source of contention with fans, the media and the team. What is said to be in place to safeguard the privacy of the players really only works to hurt the players, at least as far as perceptions are concerned. Over the past few weeks coaches have been adamant that Freeman was back to 100% and had no injuries of note. But if Freeman truly is not injured, or still dealing with the effects of injures past then it becomes even more troubling that he has been putting up such weak numbers.
Again, during the Oregon Ducks first conference win of the season (can you believe it) Freeman looked slow, uninvolved and was mostly ineffective. Running for 38 yards on 17 attempts. The chances of breaking LaMichael James’ rushing record and being invited to New York have long since flown the coop. But what’s more concerning than Freeman’s lack of on-field production is his apparent lack of interest.
Always a quiet and soft spoken guy, Freeman has nevertheless been hailed as one of the leaders of this team. A Junior running back who’s won the Pac-12, a Rose Bowl and been to the National Championship game, his leadership would be needed now that the program was being tested by youth and inexperience. But if Freeman has been counted on for leadership it hasn’t shown. It’s possible to catch glimpses of him on the sideline unengaged with other players or joking and smiling as a hated rival blasts the team into oblivion. He’s rarely been mentioned by other teammates as being a constant bastion of support and leadership in the locker room. And with a locker room so clearly in disarray it’s painfully obvious that Freeman, nor anyone else for that matter, has assumed the mantle of team leader.
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It’s possible that Freeman has just checked out. That he knew all along this would be his last year and after the injury against Nebraska he’s not very eager to take hard hits and jeopardize his future and lucrative pay day in the NFL. It’s hard to really blame a player for taking that route. Football is a punishing thankless sport and most players never get the chance to cash in. Those that do can’t be blamed for weighing the positives and negatives of giving it all and putting their body and future at risk during a losing, worthless season.
Duck fans saw something similar with De’Anthony Thomas during his last season. Apparently checked out and giving less than 100% Thomas spoke about his time at Oregon later on and revealed insight into his personal life, his mindset at Oregon and his plans for the future that where frankly refreshing to hear. Perhaps Freeman too is dealing with issues outside of the football field, perhaps his is still injured or is maybe thinking about the NFL. We probably will never know and whether we see the old dominant Royce Freeman again this season remains to be seen.
It’s hard to tell if a more productive Royce Freeman on the field and in a leadership role would have helped this season from spiraling out of control
Of course speculation is speculation and is in all honesty a bit of disservice to the players. We don’t know what’s going through their minds or what’s going on in their lives. But in a program as secretive and tight lipped as Oregon speculation is often all that we have.
It’s hard to tell if a more productive Royce Freeman on the field and in a leadership role would have helped this season from spiraling out of control (he doesn’t play defense so…) but what isn’t too hard to see is that Oregon is going to be just fine in the running back department without him. Still one can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness watching an otherwise stellar career at Oregon come to such a lackluster end.
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