If every school in the nation used only one position on a football field to describe their program, then the Oregon Ducks would be defined as an institution of legendary running backs. Junior Royce Freeman is seeking uncharted territory in 2016 and is “the next” great back in an extremely long line of Oregon star-studded workhorses.
Welcome to the second preview of our week-long position-by-position breakdown of the 2016 Oregon Ducks. The time has finally arrived to evaluate one of the deepest teams in the country at the running back position.
When looking back over the years at the powerhouse that is the University of Oregon, one can not help but remember dozens of uber-talented running backs. LaMichael James will always be my personal favorite, but names like LaGarrette Blount, Jonathan Stewart, Kenjon Barner, Terrence Whitehead and Chris Vincent are just the tip of the iceberg.
A new name that has been circling around the Duck greats is none other than Freeman. The Imperial, California native is certainly making his mark on college football, entering this season as an All-American candidate following his 2015 campaign where he accumulated over 2,000 total yards. Not only is Freeman creeping up the all-time ranks of Oregon backs, but by the time his career is over he could be No. 1 overall.
STARTER: ROYCE FREEMAN
The fourth-leading rusher in the nation from last season is clearly the most underrated superstar and Heisman Trophy candidate in college football entering 2016. Nobody in Eugene understands why the big back doesn’t get more respect nationwide and it remains a great question. Why isn’t Freeman talked about more amongst the other elite talent?
Last season, Freeman rushed for 1,836 yards while garnering 383 receiving yards, alongside 19 total touchdowns. That is quite the follow-up season after his 20-touchdown 2014 campaign. Over the course of his two-year career, Freeman has already surpassed 3,700 total yards and 39 touchdowns. What could he possibly do for another encore in 2016?
The running back needs 1,881 yards this season to break the all-time Oregon Duck record, held by LaMichael James. Yet, he still doesn’t get enough respect.
Freeman, the All-American candidate, has been named to the preseason watch list for the most prestigious awards in the country, including: The Maxwell, The Doak Walker, The Walter Camp national player of the year and of course, The Heisman Trophy.
Grabbing a handful of these awards could be the perfect exit for Freeman before an exciting National Football League career is launched in 2017. We will be there every step of his way this season!
DON’T CALL US 2ND STRING:
The Oregon Ducks have always been blessed with supremely talented running backs. Being loaded with talent means having players on your team that would be starting for 75-percent of the nation, aside from their own. The 2016 Oregon Ducks running back depth is the deepest in the country and if they all stay healthy for the most part, no team of running backs will be more complete.
This season, the Ducks return all four running backs from last season, but no freshman have been added to the mix for 2016. Freeman can rest assured when he is off the field, his team will be left in great hands and feet.
1A. TAJ GRIFFIN:
Once Freeman heads toward his NFL career, Griffin is going to be the torchbearer for the Ducks. If you saw just a glimpse of him last season, it was clear that he thrives under pressure and is the perfect fit for the Oregon high-speed attack.
In 2016, Griffin rushed 77 times for 570 yards and three touchdowns. The super sophomore averaged an incredible 7.4 yards per carry with a long of 62 yards. Griffin also caught 10 passes for 162 yards (16.2 YPC), including a 49-yard score.
The Georgia native has a certain toughness to his game, alongside a noticeable swagger that only an elite athlete can possess. Coming out of high school in 2014, Griffin was the top-ranked all purpose running back in his class.
The 5-star recruit also ran a 4.31 time for the 40-yard dash, leaving some to wonder if he is the next LaMichael James. Only time will tell, but there is something glaringly special about Taj Griffin.
1B. TONY BROOKS-JAMES:
The definition of playmaker is Tony Brooks-James and he enters this season with the potential to be the game-breaking player of the Oregon offense. When evaluating TBJ, he hits holes with the speed of Devin Hester on kick returns when he was in his prime. If that translates to the running back position with less time to make decisions and game-changing cuts, this “track star” is going to be the real deal.
Last season, TBJ rushed 32 times for 288 yards, eclipsing a ridiculous 9.0 yards per carry. He added three touchdowns, including a season-long 62-yard score. Good luck defending him out of the backfield or in the slot. He could be a kick-return nightmare for opposing special team unit’s.
Reminders of De'Anthony Thomas are only natural with his ability to move around on the field, including his special teams prowess which will be broken down next week during our Special Teams Preview.
Pac-12 coaches may feel cheated that Ducks new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick has so much RB talent to play with on Saturday’s. The play-caller has the difficult job of working with only one football per play though. Autzen Stadium is going to be saving a great deal of money in 2016 because of all the electricity in Eugene that will be supplied by the four Oregon Duck running backs.
1C. KANI BENOIT:
The junior enters the season on the back half of the deep Duck running back depth chart. However, Benoit is one unfortunate circumstance away from being the main man. The former 3-star recruit has seen his playing time steadily increase each season since his arrival.
In 2015, Benoit was third on the team in carries (52) as he rushed for 364 yards and three touchdowns. In his limited action, he did average an impressive 7.0 yards per carry, including a 62-yard rushing touchdown. He also hauled in two passes for 49 total yards and a score.
The Phoenix, Arizona resident received the highly-respected Dudley Clarke Memorial Award last season, given to the team’s most improved player. If that is a sign of things to come, alongside his rapid improvement, then the Oregon coaching staff is sitting pretty with the deepest running back roster in the nation, bar none.
Some programs fill out their walk-ons with those students that help boost the team grade point average. Yet, the University of Oregon believes in competitive balance from top to bottom and who can argue with them and their annual success at the running back position?
2016 will be no different as Oregon has three more running running backs with collegiate experience. As stated earlier, the Ducks did not add any freshman to this unit so everyone suiting up will have an understanding or experience level of some sort.
Lane Roseberry, Jarret Lacoste and Langston Stuckey give meaning to the phrase, “embarrassment of riches,” as the Ducks round out their running game.
LONG AND SHORT:
Strength in numbers will be the toon of the Oregon football program in 2016. Every coach searches desperately for roster depth to protect their investments throughout the college football season. Fortunately for head coach Mark Helfrich, he does not have to look far for the next big difference maker on the Ducks’ offense.
Royce Freeman could win every major award this season for a running back and seems to only be getting better and stronger with age and wear on his body. He has a rare combination of size, strength and speed that could capitulate in one of the greatest college football season’s ever witnessed for a running back.
If the Heisman hopeful fails to carry the load all year, then certainly his counterparts will not hesitate at the opportunity to extend their playing time. Regardless, Oregon is more than blessed with talent, depth and desire. The mixture of these three attributes can drive a team to unimaginable new heights. The Ducks are hoping their quartet of backs can shoulder their hopes and desires in 2016.