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Oregon’s Royce Freeman poised for bounce-back year in 2017

For most college running backs, a season with 9 rushing touchdowns, 945 yards on the ground, and a healthy 5.63 per-carry average would be quite solid. Oregon Ducks senior Royce Freeman isn’t most college running backs.

In just three years, he has reached the game’s peak, while also languishing through disappointment. Both University of Oregon and Pac-12 Conference records lie within his reach, should he bounce back from what was a sluggish 2016 — well, sluggish by the lofty standards he set in 2014 and 2015.

Freeman burst onto the scene as a freshman with 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns, added another 158 and one score receiving, and served as the perfect backfield complement in quarterback Marcus Mariota’s Heisman Trophy season. Freeman played an integral role in winning Oregon’s Pac-12 championship and fueling the Ducks’ run to the College Football Playoff championship game.

Just a few years after first witnessing Oregon football history, Royce Freeman helped make more of it.

“My first memory of Oregon football was seeing LaMichael James when they played Auburn in the national championship,” Freeman said ahead of the 2015 Rose Bowl Game, via ASAP Sports.

His 2015 was record-setting at 1,836 yards, which surpassed the mark previously set by James. He tacked on 17 rushing touchdowns to boot, and he embarked on 2016 as one of the most prominent preseason favorites for the Heisman. While his final tally was strong — he ranked 76th among all FBS rushers — Freeman was well off the award-winning pace many anticipated.

Moreover, Freeman’s production dipped in the latter half of the season. He scored multiple touchdowns in three of his first four games, only slowing down when sidelined with a leg injury. However, after racking up three scores in a loss to Washington State, Freeman mustered just two more the rest of the season.

The Ducks also went on a slide, finishing 2-5 over the final seven. Freeman endured a stretch of 15 carries for 10 yards against the anemic California rushing defense; 17 carries for 38 yards against Arizona State; and 10 carries for 38 yards at USC. Those are three of his five worst per-carry averages in three seasons at Oregon — one of the others was against Ohio State in January 2015.

After an underwhelming junior season, Freeman had every reason to forgo his final season of eligibility. Running backs’ NFL draft stock comes at a premium, often tied to college workload. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Freeman could have wowed scouts with his physical skill set at workouts to erase any bad impression his late-season decline might have left.

November 21 2009: Runningback Toby Gerhart scoring his third touchdown during a Stanford Cardinal 34-28 loss to the CAL Bears at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, CA

Oregon also underwent a coaching change in response to the 4-8 finish. The arrival of Willie Taggart, however, might be the catalyst fueling a comeback season for one of Oregon’s all-time greats.

Taggart comes to Oregon with a track record for working with breakout ball-carriers. As head coach at Western Kentucky, Antonio Andrews went for 1,730 yards in back-to-back seasons (2012 and 2013), one year after Bobby Rainey piled up 1,695. Taggart’s main USF back, Marlon Mack, led the American Athletic Conference with 1,381 yards in 2015.

Taggart’s arrival at Oregon brings him back to the West Coast, where he spent time as Stanford’s running backs coach under Jim Harbaugh from 2007-2009. His top pupil in that time was Toby Gerhart, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2009 with 1,871 yards and a staggering 28 rushing touchdowns.

Indeed, Taggart has an impressive roster of running backs under his tutelage. He inherits one of college football’s most talented in Freeman, whose road back to running with the nation’s best began in a recently completed session of practices.

“Royce Freeman, [who] we expected to, had a really nice spring,” Taggart said.

Change-of-pace back Tony Brooks-James offers a secondary look to keep defenses honest. It’s a dangerous thunder-and-lightning combination, especially as the field opens up further with talented sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert slinging passes.

The cornerstone of an Oregon resurgence resides in that backfield. The Ducks’ comeback from a disappointing 2016 should follow the same trajectory of Royce Freeman: a proven star ready to ascend one more time before his college career ends.

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