Oregon's Royce Freeman looks to add "leader" to his resume
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Just a sophomore, Oregon running back Royce Freeman is already assuming a leadership role on the Ducks' offense.
That's only natural considering he's the top returning rusher on a team known for its dynamic running backs - a legacy that includes such stars as Jonathan Stewart and LaMichael James. Freeman will likely carry the load on the ground while Oregon adjusts this season to a new quarterback - whoever that may be.
''Now that I know more within the offense, I expect more out of myself, both performance-wise and leadership-wise,'' he said. ''It's just something I'm progressively working on.''
Freeman is focusing on himself while Oregon's quarterback competition plays out. The leading candidates to replace Marcus Mariota, Oregon's record-breaking Heisman Trophy winner, are Jeff Lockie and newcomer Vernon Adams.
Lockie was Mariota's backup last season and is the most familiar with the Ducks' offense. Adams' transfer to Oregon for his final year of eligibility was delayed until he finished a math class needed to wrap up his degree at Eastern Washington, where he was a repeat Big Sky Conference offensive player of the year.
''I feel like every team has a new identity, the players who are out there define it,'' Freeman said. ''We're going to see what this team's identity is.''
A year ago at this time, Freeman was generating buzz in fall camp - but his talents were still largely unknown outside of his coaches and teammates because Oregon closes its practices.
What was known was that Freeman was a five-star recruit out of Southern California who someday could challenge Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.
Freeman wasn't going to wait his turn: In his first college game, Oregon's 62-13 season-opening victory over South Dakota, he ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. He also caught a pass for 11 yards. The next week he rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns in a 46-27 victory over then-No. 7 Michigan State.
Over the course of the season, Freeman's profile rose as Tyner struggled with injuries and Marshall assumed more of a hybrid receiver role.
His best outing came against Washington, when he finished with 169 yards on 29 carries and four touchdowns. There were other memorable moments along the way, including his 26-yard touchdown pass to Mariota in Oregon's loss to Arizona, the lone loss of the regular season.
Freeman, a power back listed at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, finished with 1,365 yards rushing - a Pac-12 true freshman record - and 18 touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass. He was named the league's freshman of the year on offense.
He was expected to be part of another two-pronged ground attack - a la James and Kenjon Barner - with Tyner, who was hampered last season after injuring his shoulder against Washington. But to start fall camp, the Ducks were hit by the news that Tyner had surgery and would likely miss the rest of this season.
''We took a hit. He's a versatile player and helped us out a lot, but we're ready to bounce back,'' Freeman said. ''We've got a lot of other weapons ready to go and we can't let it bring us down.''
Coach Mark Helfrich likened Freeman to a Mariota-type leader: Speaking through his actions.
''Initially, that's not his natural deal to vocalize anything. But he was an unbelievable worker from day one, a great worker. When he is just that physically imposing, doing what he does on the field, in the weight room, in the classroom, in the community . we need more of that,'' Helfrich said.
Freeman prefers not to reflect too much on his first year and instead focuses on the future. The changes the Ducks are facing without Mariota bring new challenges.
''It's a little bit different. Especially with the personnel that we have now,'' he said. ''But the comfort level is there more for me than at the beginning of last season. I'm just trying to help the younger guys fill in their roles and get ready to play.''