The Pac-12 Conference usually has a wealth of talent at the quarterback position, but it might actually be down year for the league as far as top-tier signal callers are concerned.
There are, however, two of the top running backs in the nation that happen to reside in the Pac-12 North, and both backs have a good chance to make a serious Heisman run.But when it comes to their NFL prospects, these two backs have a similar, yet different, paths in front of them when it comes to playing on Sundays.
Oregon and Stanford will each rely heavily on Royce Freeman and Christian McCaffrey, respectively, to engineer their offenses in order to have successful 2016 campaigns. Stanford is favored to win the North once again despite not boasting a proven quarterback. Oregon, while in the same position as the Cardinal — as far as the quarterback situation is concerned — is picked to finish third.
That’s how good McCaffrey is and how highly he’s thought of by the media, who make such selections.
McCaffrey, who will be a junior this season, is a 6-foot, 200-pounder who will have a massive workload in the Stanford offensive scheme this season. Not only is he one of the best backs in the conference and the country, but he’s the best kick returner and an above average receiver. The Cardinal standout broke the NCAA record for all-purpose yards a year ago with 3,864. His flexibility to play multiple positions is going to make him attractive to several NFL teams once he does all he can do at the college level.
He could be the next Darren Sproles and he could easily be a better De’Anthony Thomas. There’s only so much pounding a tailback can take in a career, but with him not just playing running back, NFL teams might think there is more mileage in McCaffrey then the average running back at the same point in their careers.
According to Stanford coach David Shaw, McCaffrey will have plenty of help around him, so he can save those all-important legs.
“Notre Dame did a phenomenal job trying to bottle up Christian last year and Kevin Hogan had a great game,” he said at Media Day. “Devin Cajuste made some game changing plays and we kicked a game winning field goal, so that’s what it shows to be a good team with a bunch of different players that can make plays. Michael Rector coming back was as big of a thing for us as anything, being that veteran, deep threat, explosive receiver that if the box continues to get loaded and he’s left on an island he’s got a chance to have a heck of a year. So now having all those guys around with experience, with playing ability, along with Bryce Love helps Christian be what Christian can be and maybe even make him more dangerous knows that he has more dangerous guys around him.”
Freeman up at Oregon will have some different, but just as important, responsibilities. At 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds, Freeman is the typical bruiser back that NFL teams love to have on their roster. He’s similar to Johnathan Stewart, also a Duck, who played in the most recent Super Bowl with Carolina. Freeman can also be compared, somewhat, to Marshawn Lynch — another Pac-12 product (Cal).
Lynch is the ultimate example that there’s only so much mileage in the life of a running back. Freeman running won’t have to worry about that for a few more seasons to be sure, but as a typical back, he’ll only have a certain amount of time to make his mark in the NFL.
“Someone asked my earlier, who many carries do I want to give to Royce Freeman. you want to give Royce Freeman? As many as we possibly can without him ever losing a step,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said at Pac-12 Media Day. “It’s kind of like running your quarterback, what’s the magic number, until he gets hurt, and then everybody yells at you. And that’s always — you’re playing that part of it. You’re playing his natural instinct.”
Not only is Freeman tough to bring down, but he’s been able to show in Oregon’s offense that he does have wheels and can hit the hole hard — something else NFL scouts tend to look for.
These two backs will definitely be playing on Sundays, but their different abilities at the position will dictate how long and how effective they’ll be in the professional ranks.
Freeman may turn out to be the better pure running back for the next decade, but with McCaffrey’s talents at other positions, he should be still playing at a high level when Freeman is getting ready to retire.
Of course, that’s all looking way ahead, because right now not only are these two of the best backs in the Pac-12, but they’re two of the best running backs — and overall players — in the country as well.