The official stat sheet read 11 carries, 87 yards and two touchdowns. For most college running backs, that would be a heck of a day. For Oregon’s Royce Freeman, who’s expected to put up numbers that would catch the eyes Heisman voters, that kind of stat line might mean several things and most are not good.
Freeman is 5-11 and 230 pounds of pure muscle and the Ducks’ best power running back since Johnathan Stewart. Oregon has had several scat back types such as LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, but Freeman is built to carry the ball 25-30 times. With his frame and skills, he could rack up 190-200 yards and several scores, especially against a team such as FCS UC-Davis, which was 2-9 last season.
The Ducks had a problem last season of having a tendency to forget about their big bruiser of a back. Former offensive coordinator Scott Frost would make calls play after play that didn’t involve Freeman for long stretches at a time. New coordinator Matt Lubick seems to have fallen into the same trap after just two games. His first game was the Alamo Bowl, where Oregon blew a giant halftime lead only to fall in double overtime. Several factors were involved in that meltdown, but not giving the ball to Freeman to at least use some clock was one of those factors.
It was Lubick’s first game and some of that questionable play calling can be attributed to inexperience. But he has had an entire off-season to figure out strategies for his offense and one would think that strategy No. 1 would be to cram the ball down the opponent’s throat by giving Freeman the ball time and time again. Against the Aggies, a mediocre FCS team at best, Freeman should be the type of player that should wake them up at night with cold sweats.
Instead, Oregon used Freeman only in certain situations. If he’s not going to be the featured back in the season opener against a small school, when will he be? The competition only gets tougher from here on out.
Not using Freeman as much as one would expect might be an issue of the Ducks having too many offensive weapons and Lubick trying to get everyone involved as much as possible. Oregon has tremendous depth at the skill positions, especially at wide receiver. There’s only one football to get to the likes of Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford, Devon Allen and Pharaoh Brown as well as a host of tight end and other backs. When it comes to skill position talent, the Ducks are embarrassingly deep.
Time of possession hasn’t been a big statistic ever since Chip Kelly arrived with his speedy offense, and it’s the same under Mark Helfrich. Perhaps since they do have Freeman, it would be smart to give him the ball a lot more, use up some clock to help out a defense that is going through some issues of their own. They are learning a brand new scheme under new coordinator Brady Hoke and there’s bound to be some growing pains. Maybe not putting them out there as much as Oregon is used to might be the prudent way to go for the defense’s sake.
One reason Lubick might be holding back on Freeman is the offensive line. The starting group in the season opener consisted of four redshirt freshmen and one senior. They are supposed to have a lot of talent, and when the second half of the season comes upon us as well as the next few seasons, this might be the best group of linemen ever.
But they’re not there yet, and it definitely showed at times on Saturday. A bad or inexperienced offensive line could be dangerous to a running back. One missed assignment or missed block could mean a nasty hit by a linebacker. The Ducks have a lot of depth at the running back position, but the players behind Freeman are not Freeman. The trio of backups, Kani Benoit, Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin are all out of the James and Barner mold. LaGarrette Blount they are not. Those three should trade off in giving Freeman a break here and there, but the big back from Imperial, Calif., needs to be featured and highlighted as much as possible.
Seeing how Freeman is used, and how often, will be one of the many interesting developments going down in Eugene as the season goes on. Between how Dakota Prukop improves at quarterback, how that offensive line gels and how Hoke’s defense steadily improves, it will be easy to forget about the use of Freeman.
He’s a player some colleges don’t have at running back all too often. When you have him, Oregon should utilize his skills as much as possible because he won’t be in Eugene forever. This season will surely be his last as a Duck because he’s a sure first round draft pick and Oregon would be foolish not to take advantage of Freeman while he’s still there.