Royce Freeman is entering his third year at the University of Oregon and he has surpassed all expectations. There seems to be a weekly play where Royce Freeman does something that truly surprises us.
Last year, in his second year out of high school he set the Oregon single-season rushing record with 1,836 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Against Washington State Freeman ran for 246 yards and in the second half of the Alamo Bowl he was one of the only weapons that the Ducks could effectively use. Even with the Horned Frog defense able to focus all their attention on the running game Royce was still productive.
Freeman is simply a football player who does things that he should not be able to do. He's six feet tall, weighs 230 pounds, but can outrun defensive backs and make people miss at the second level. A guy who can run over people and push the pile into the end zone by virtue of his size and strength should not be able to juke two linebackers in a telephone booth and then outrun a safety. While the offense did a great job opening holes for Royce, proof being that Freeman only didn't reach 100 yards in two games last year, whenever he gets past the initial level he could look back at the offense and say, "Ok guys. I got it from here."
I would say his one real weakness that got significantly better as the season went on was his lack of patience when getting the ball. He tended to run straight into where the hole was supposed to be before the line had been able to create it. In the latter half of the season you can find a more patient Freeman who waits and can make cutbacks across two gaps.
There are three phases to a Royce Freeman run. Once he received the handoff he would run to where the hole should be, pause and then make a decisive cut on when to go. Once he commits to a path we can occasionally see him throw a stiff arm at the line and ward off the supposed defender, but it's past the initial line push that we see the real subtlety in Freeman's game. Freeman doesn't make huge cuts or break anyone's ankles the way that we saw LaMichael James or Kenjon Barner made people look silly. Freeman keeps his legs moving, but is very economical, he stays low to the ground and makes smaller, linear cuts. It's the type of misleading agility that results in tacklers falling around towards one side. The cuts are not particularly flashy but they are extremely effective. The third and final phase is Royce breaking into the open letting the tiger out of the cage. He explodes into a full sprint and an aggressive forward lean. If this were a Looney Tunes cartoon the turf would be flying up past him.
Where Royce has made some of the biggest strides has been his threat as a receiver. When running a route out into the flats Freeman can catch the ball and turn the corner with ease, skating his way past whoever was supposed to be guarding him and running towards a defensive back who is probably giving up 35 pounds. Perhaps the best example of Royce's receiving abilities can be seen in his game against USC. Freeman motioned out of the backfield and was followed by a linebacker who was in man coverage. I distinctly remember watching this happen before the snap and thinking, "Oh boy, this linebacker is in trouble." At the line Freeman does a small shake, Adams looks to his left and when the safety commits he looks back to his right to throw Freeman down the side with five yards between him and the linebacker.
We probably have only one more year of Royce Freeman. This year he will be a Heisman dark-horse candidate late into the season. (As long as Oregon keeps winning) and will be a finalist for a lot of running back awards. But the career length of running backs is not long. Human bodies simply struggle to deal with running into and being tackled by other individuals who weigh more than 225 pounds. He's got to go to the NFL and make his money. We've got hopefully 15 games left of watching one of the best football players in the country and one of the most productive in school history. Over the course of the last season he got significantly better and I'm even more excited to see what he's done this offseason. Really, anything he does now is going to be outside the realm of what someone his size should be able to do. Last year he broke the mold and put cracks in the pavement. Let's see what he does once he gets to the next level on Sundays.
(The above highlight video has a rap song with some NSFW language, so if you're not into that I suggest watching it with the sound off.)