Among the many questions surrounding the Oregon football program right now, one isn’t getting a lot of play. Quite frankly, it’s a huge mystery.
What’s wrong with Royce Freeman?
The Oregon tailback was once heralded as a possible Heisman contender; his first two seasons were very strong. Freeman gained nearly 1,400 yards as a freshman with 18 touchdowns. Then he gained over 1,800 yards and 17 more touchdowns last season. It was just assumed, and rightly so, that Freeman’s stock and stats would continue to rise. A 2,000-yard season wouldn’t have been out of the league of possibility.
After the Ducks began their current slide, Freeman seems to have completely checked out, a quality not looked upon very well by NFL scouts. Through six games, he’s gained 523 yards and will be lucky to have 900 yards by season’s end.
Ironically, in Oregon’s best effort in the middle of the five-game losing skid, Freeman had his worst game. He carried the ball 15 times in a game that went two overtimes and gained a grand total of 10 yards. Freeman looked slow and lost, not hitting the holes at all. Meanwhile, sophomore Tony Brooks-James saw those same holes and managed to gain 109 yards in 15 carries.
“All the tailbacks have been limited to what they’re able to do in practice for the last couple of weeks,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said the day after the 52-49 loss at Cal.
“Tony has been the guy that has refused to come out. There was a point on a kickoff return we were yelling at him about ball security and he couldn’t feel his left arm. He just refused to come out, not that those other guys (Freeman and the other backs) aren’t, don’t get me wrong.
“But (Brooks-James) has been very productive. Every back could have done more and they were pressed in there to fit the run scheme better that again, is very correctable.”
It’s a good thing Helfrich mentioned that Brooks-James’ toughness also applies to the other back. If he hadn’t, the fourth-year coach sitting on a seat that is becoming warmer with every loss would sound like he was throwing his No. 1 back under a bus.
Freeman looked anything but a No. 1 back last Friday. His toughness has never been questioned before, so one might believe he is injured in some way. Freeman has had a history of injuries, but none of those made him look that ineffective. If he is injured, Freeman might be playing tentatively, afraid of worsening whatever ailment he has. Running behind an offensive line that is 80-percent freshmen would give any tailback a reason to play cautiously.
Unfortunately for the Ducks, Freeman ran like he was a freshman walk-on against Cal; the game was too fast for his comfort level. In Oregon’s offense, a tailback running with caution is the last thing it needs on the field. It just doesn’t work that way.
Oregon has had a policy where the Ducks don’t discuss injuries with the media. It was a policy adopted by Chip Kelly and kept by Helfrich. Up to now, it has worked to the benefit of the players and the program. However, in Freeman’s case, the policy might be doing him and the program a great disservice.
Within the policy, Oregon has always maintained that if a player plays, he is expected to perform and perform well, regardless of the severity of an injury. By playing Freeman and even taking him on the road, the Duck coaching staff is effectively saying he is healthy enough to perform in the schemes implemented for that specific game.
It’s to be assumed Freeman is healthy, and his poor play might be the result of a mental block. That’s highly unlikely. Issues like that just don’t come about at random.
Freeman is hurt, and the quicker Oregon admits that to everybody else the better. The idea that Brooks-James is just better at a scheme against Cal is borderline absurd. Freeman gained 180 yards last season against the Golden Bears and 112 yards the season before as a freshman.
By playing him, the Ducks are insulting the intelligence of the media, the fans and the opponent. It’s a common practice to try to outwit opponents by not divulging the true nature of injuries so they must prepare for him in practices leading up to the game. However, any coach with two good eyes can watch film on Freeman and see that he is much slower than usual.
That’s not doing Freeman or the Ducks any good. Sit him until he’s completely healthy and at 100 percent. It’ll be better for everyone involved in the long run.