Aaron Fentress

Mark Helfrich takes intriguing route toward reinvention with the Chicago Bears

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USA Today

Mark Helfrich takes intriguing route toward reinvention with the Chicago Bears

Mark Helfrich's move to the NFL as the Chicago Bears new offensive coordinator hit the sports world today like an unblocked, blindside blitz. 

Bam!

Where did that come from?

Helfrich waited 13 months before jumping back into the coaching world after Oregon fired him in 2016 following a 4-8 season just two years after he had guided the Ducks to the national title game. During his hiatus, according to some close to Helfrich, he received interest from several college teams about becoming their head coach or offensive coordinator. Repeatedly, however, Helfrich rejected inquiries while instead choosing to keep his family in Eugene, take time off from coaching, work in television and consider his future coaching options. 

Now he's back in the coaching game, taking his quarterback developing and offensive coordinating skills to the NFL to work for a team in desperate need of an offensive overhaul.

It's an interesting move for Helfrich and one that smacks of a man attempting to completely reinvent himself as a coach. It's a move that could pay off big time should he find success.

The easy move for Helfrich would have been to join former Oregon coach Chip Kelly at UCLA as the Bruins new offensive coordinator. Kelly hired Helfrich for the same position at Oregon in 2009 and the results were the greatest run of offensive production and victories in program history before it all came crashing down in 2016, four seasons after Kelly departed for the NFL. 

But taking that rout would have placed Helfrich right back under Kelly's shadow. Had they been successful, all of the credit still would have gone to Kelly just as it did while the two were at Oregon. 

By heading to the NFL, however, Helfrich is taking a swing for the fences at the highest level the sport has to offer.  Helfrich will still be in the shadows of an offensive-minded head coach in Matt Nagy, hired by the Bears this week away from Kansas City.

Nagy has said that he will call the plays in Chicago, as Kelly did for Oregon, which means that Helfrich's heavy lifting will be done during the week while game planning, offering play call suggestions during games and, maybe most importantly, assisting in the development of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. 

The irony here, of course, is that one of the more amusing takes from Helfrich haters has been that he failed to develop a quarterback while riding the coattails of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to success for two years post Kelly. Of course, that's a complete contradiction given that Helfrich recruited and developed Mariota.  Helfrich also coached and developed Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas, and he recruited, developed and coached Bryan Bennett and Justin Herbert. 

In the end, Helfrich's starters at Oregon were Masoli, Thomas, Mariota, Vernon Adams, Dakota Prukop and Herbert, a certain future NFL draft pick. That's one hell of a run for any coach, and it's one that current coach Mario Cristobal will be fortunate to duplicate, providing he remains at Oregon long enough to do so.  

But, because Jeff Lockie and Morgan Mahalak didn't work out, Helfrich has somehow labeled by some as having been a failure at developing quarterbacks. 

All of this nonsense also ignores the fact that long ago, while Helfrich was the quarterbacks coach at Boise State, he helped Bart Hendricks earn Big West Conference player of the year in 1999 and 2000. Later, Helfrich coached quarterbacks at Arizona State where he helped Andrew Walter set numerous ASU and Pac-12 record, and become a third-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. 

Both stints were under coach Dirk Koetter, a former Oregon offensive coordinator and the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach (more on that connection later).

In 2006, at the age of 32, Helfrich became the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation at Colorado. That run led to Kelly hiring him at Oregon in order to add Helfrich's pro-style acumen to Kelly's spread attack. 

Now Helfrich finds himself in the NFL as an offensive coordinator. The reality is this: Should he succeed in developing Trubisky and help Nagy turnaround the Bears' offense, Helfrich would then be in position to work his way toward becoming a head coach in the NFL. 

That's typically how these things work. The NFL is all about connections. Helfrich has a few, including Koetter. 

But, at the end of the day, Helfrich must produce. He must develop Trubisky. He must help Chicago's offense rise from its 2017 ranking of 30th in the NFL. Chances are that he will do just that. The guy can coach. He proved as much by going 33-8 over three seasons before that disastrous 2016 mess. He's also proven, despite inane beliefs to the contrary, that he can develop quarterbacks. 

Should Helfrich work that magic again, he could be will on his way to far bigger and better things than Oregon football. 

Oregon extends contracts of Keith Heyward and Michael Johnson

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USA Today

Oregon extends contracts of Keith Heyward and Michael Johnson

Oregon announced today that the football program has extended the contracts of safeties coach Keith Heyward and wide receivers coach Michael Johnson through the 2019 season, further keeping intact most of the coaching staff following the departure of coach Willie Taggart to Florida State.

New coach Mario Cristobal has now successfully retained defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, defensive line coach Joe Salave'a, Heyward and Johnson. 

No official word yet on cornerbacks coach Charles Clark. However, according to sources he is expected to return to Oregon.

Gone with Taggart are running backs coach Donte Pimpleton and special teams coordinator/outside linebackers Raymond Woodie. Botch coached with Taggart at South Florida. 

“We are excited to extend the contracts of Keith and Michael,” UO coach Mario Cristobal said in a prepared statement. “Keith is a rising star in this industry and played an instrumental role in our remarkable improvement defensively across all metrics, and we look forward to his continued impact in the development of our players. Michael has great experience in developing offensive talent in both college football and the NFL, and his tremendous contributions this season were reflected in the improvement of our young receivers and an offense that scored 40 or more points in seven games in 2017. Both Keith and Michael have a strong commitment to the Oregon program, and their leadership and efforts will continue to provide great value to the Ducks moving forward.”  

Retaining most of the staff is huge for the Ducks, who had a strong showing during last week's early signing period but signing 15 recruits in a class ranked No. 13 by Rivals.com. Five commits remain unsigned but Oregon did see seven four-star rated players decommit following Taggart's exit in early December.

 

Oregon off to good start during early signing period

Oregon off to good start during early signing period

The positive aspect of the new early signing period, which started today and ends Friday, is that programs such as Oregon are able to lockdown recruits well in advance of the Feb. 7 National Signing Day. 

The negative side of the new early signing period is that players that don't sign by Friday will most certainly create anxiety for programs regarding their true level of commitment.

If you're truly committed to a program, why not sign ASAP?

With these thoughts in mind, it's safe to say that today was a good one for Oregon. The Ducks received signatures from 13 out of 20 committed recruits. That's a great start especially considering the turmoil the team went through following the departure of former coach Willie Taggart to Florida State and the team's lackluster performance on Dec. 16 during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

"I'm really excited," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. "We're really happy about the results. But I want to emphasize that this is kind of the halfway point."

If the Ducks can double what they did today then all well be right in Eugene after taking a brutal hit in recruiting following Taggart leaving.

Of the 13 players signed, seven were ranked as four-star recruits by 247Sports.com and six on Rivals.com.  That's well below the 17 four-star recruits the Ducks had committed before Taggart left. 

At that time, Oregon's class ranked No. 1 on Scout.com (since merged with 247Sports) and No. 5 on Rivals.com. As of Wednesday night, Oregon's class was ranked 11th on Rivals and No. 13 on 247Sports. 

That's still very good for Oregon, which has had just one top 10 recruiting class since such things were tracked. 

But much of the class' ranking is due to volume while other high-end programs are lurking in the shadows ready to potentially race past Oregon in the rankings. 

The Ducks' average star ranking is now 3.4 for their 20 commits. That average ranks 19th on Rivals.com.  Power recruiting programs that could still move ahead of Oregon are No. 12 LSU (3.45 average), No. 16 Michigan (3.32), No. 22 Florida (3.6), No. 28 Tennessee (3.5), No 34 USC (4.0), No. 43 UCLA (3.64) and No. 51 Florida State (3.89), which now has Taggart guiding the ship. 

The Ducks could need a few more four-star signees in order to fend off at least some of these programs. 

A huge loss for Oregon was defensive end Malcolm Lamar out of Seffner, Fla.  He decommitted soon after Taggart left Oregon. Two other Florida recruits also bailed on the Ducks hurting their class ranking. 

But, in the end, these rankings only mean so much.  We've all seen enough high-end recruits flame out at Oregon to know that these rankings only go so far. The bottom line is that if Oregon can keep this class within the top 15. That would be a huge deal for a program that has seen so much flux in the last 12 months. 

What matters most is the young man who leads the list of Oregon's signees and that's four-star quarterback Tyler Shough (Chandler, Ariz.), the No. 5-rated pro-style quarterback in the nation. Oregon must hit on him or trouble is not too far off.

Shough will compete with freshman Braxton Burmeister for the backup job next season. Should Shough win the job, expect Burmeister to transfer sooner rather than later. Starter Justin Herbert is academically driven, which means he could stick around through 2019. But should he instead enter the 2019 NFL Draft, the Ducks will need either Shough or Burmeister to deliver or they will certainly face a potentially poor season. 

If the Ducks hit on Shough, or develop Burmeister, the rest of the class will fall into place and prove talented enough to win.

So, regardless of where the Ducks end up ranked when this is all said and done, just remember that all of the four-star athletes in the world won't matter if the quarterback position isn't locked down. 

For more on the signees, visit the following link.

 

SOURCES: DL coach Joe Salave'a has told players he will remain at Oregon

SOURCES: DL coach Joe Salave'a has told players he will remain at Oregon

UPDATE: Oregon officially extended the contracts of Joe Salave'a, Jim Leavitt and Marcus Arroyo on Tuesday, Dec. 19.

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Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave'a has told Ducks players that he will remain with the team next season, according to sources.

Oregon's defensive turnaround in 2017 can largely be attributed to Salave'a's work with the defensive line.

This good news for Oregon comes on the heels of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt reportedly signing a new contract to remain with the Ducks

Retaining Salave'a means that the Ducks will retain their top four assistant coaches from this season. 

STAYING AT OREGON

Mario Cristobal: Athletic director Rob Mullens hired Cristobal as the head coach eight days prior to Saturday's 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Cristobal, formerly the Ducks' co-offensive coordinator, will continue to coach the offensive line.

Jim Leavitt: He is reportedly signing a contract extension to remain at Oregon. 

Marcus Arroyo: He has been retained as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and he will be the primary play caller. Arroyo was a co-offensive coordinator this season. 

Joe Salave'a: He remains on as the defensive line coach and associated head coach. 

LEAVING OREGON

Donte Pimpleton: He will leave UO to coach running backs at Florida State

UP IN THE AIR

Wide receivers coach Michael Johnson.

Special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie

Safeties coach Keith Heyward

Cornerbacks coach Charles Clark.

SOURCES: Oregon RB coach Donte Pimpleton joining Florida State's staff

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Courtesy of Oregon

SOURCES: Oregon RB coach Donte Pimpleton joining Florida State's staff

Oregon running backs coach Donte Pimpleton will coach the same position at Florida State under former Ducks coach Willie Taggart, according to sources,. 

Pimpleton becomes the first Oregon assistant coach that Taggart has hired away from the Ducks since he left UO on Dec. 4 after one season but he likely won't be the last. 

Pimpleton joined the Ducks' staff last winter after spending two seasons coaching running backs under Taggart at South Florida. Pimpleton first coached under Taggart at Western Kentucky where he worked with the wide receivers. 

The pair were teammates at Western Kentucky where Taggart played quarterback and Pimpleton played wide receiver. 

Taggart's hiring of Pimpleton kicks off the assistant coach watch at Oregon.

The Ducks elevated Mario Cristobal from co-offensive coordinator to head coach. Cristobal has named Marcus Arroyo as offensive coordinator.  Also, Oregon has reportedly retained defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.

However, the status of defensive line coach Joe Salave'a, cornerbacks coach Charles Clark, safeties coach Keith Heyward, wide receivers coach Michael Johnson and outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie remain uncertain. 

According to a source there is a good chance that at least one more current Oregon assistant will join Taggart at Florida State. Woodie appears to be a logical choice given that he was Taggart's defensive coordinator in 2016 at South Florida. 

Last week, Taggart also added former Oregon State running backs coach Telly Lockette to his FSU staff as the tight ends coach. 

REPORT: Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to remain at Oregon

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USA Today

REPORT: Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to remain at Oregon

Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will remain with the Ducks after signing a new contract, a source has confirmed. 

The story was first reported by Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports. 

According to Feldman's report, Leavitt signed an extension that will pay him an average of $1.7 million per year through 2021. That's a hefty raise over the $1.125 million Leavitt made this season after leaving Colorado. 

Leavitt remaining at Oregon appeared to be in doubt after the Ducks named Mario Cristobal head coach following the departure of Willie Taggart for Florida State.  Leavitt, who was the head coach at South Florida from 1997 through 2012, lobbied for Oregon's head coaching position but was passed over for Cristobal, who was the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach under Taggart.

Oregon's defense ranks 46th in the nation in total defense after finishing at 128th in 2016.

  

Oregon's Cristobal momentum goes bust in Las Vegas Bowl

Oregon's Cristobal momentum goes bust in Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon coach Mario Cristobal didn't want to hear about his team possibly having played uninspired football and being distracted during a 38-28 loss to No. 25 Boise State Saturday afternoon in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Senior safety Tyree Robinson shook his head and smirked at the mere suggestion that the Ducks (7-6) were impacted at all by the emotional rollercoaster the players endured last week when former coach Willie Taggart bailed for Florida State and three days later Cristobal took over the reigns. 

Yet, to pretend that none of that madness contributed to the uncharacteristically bad showing by Oregon against BSU (11-3) on Saturday defies logic. 

"I don't think our guys were uninspired," Cristobal said. "We just didn't play well."

Not playing well equates to making some mistakes here and there that cost you a game. Simply not playing well does not explain away rushing for just 47 net yards after gaining 268 per game during the regular season or why an offense that averaged 52 points per game with sophomore Justin Herbert at quarterback didn't find the end zone until the third quarter against Boise State. 

"We just wanted to do whatever we can, lay our bodies on the line for (Cristobal)," Robinson said when pressed further about the team's emotional state during the game. "We're not worried about the decision that coach Taggart decided to make. We were playing for this coach now and that's all that matters."

Truthfully, it would be more comforting to know that the Ducks were indeed distracted. Otherwise, the alternative is that they simply got out-coached, out-worked and smacked around by what amounts to an inferior opponent on paper. What exactly would that mean for Oregon's future?

The team we saw go 6-1 with Herbert at quarterback (he missed five games with a broken collarbone) and stop cold a rising Arizona team before destroying a bad Oregon State team to close out the season appeared headed for a 10-win season in 2018. The team we saw on Saturday would be lucky to become bowl eligible again. 

The Ducks played conservative football in the first half with a lot of short passes as if freshman Braxton Burmeister were still filling in for Herbert. The offense line, coached by Cristobal, played awful football. 

Not only couldn't Oregon run well, but the Ducks offered mostly shaky protection for Herbert, who was sacked four times and harassed into two uncharacteristically badly thrown interceptions, one resulting in a 53-yard touchdown return that gave the Broncos a 24-0 lead in the second quarter.  

"We just didn't execute," said Herbert, who also lost a fumble. "We didn't move the ball when we needed to. We didn't hold up our end of the bargain."

The defense didn't play particularly well, either, but did keep Oregon in the game with two defensive scores within the final minute of the first half thanks to some horrible decisions by the Broncos. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye recovered a fumble off of a botched Statue of Liberty play and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown. Later, Robinson intercepted a horrifically thrown pass route into the end zone and ran it back for an Oregon record 100 yard touchdown return that make the score 24-14 at halftime.  

Those two miracles only delayed the inevitable. The Ducks simply didn't have it on this day. And who really could blame the team for coming out flat. There is simply no way that this team was not impacted by the entire goings on over the previous two weeks. Let's recap:

  • Taggart on Dec. 1 informs team that he would listen to Florida State, which upsets many players.  
  • Taggart goes on a recruiting trip on Dec. 4 in which he also interviews with Florida State. 
  • Taggart returns that same day, and according to some players, sends mixed messages about his intentions. 
  • Taggart tells the team on Dec. 5 that he is leaving after one season, which leads to some players taking to Twitter to essentially call him a liar. 
  • Taggart is introduced at FSU on Dec. 6 while some of Oregon recruits from its top-five ranked recruiting class begin decommitting. 
  • Oregon begins a coaching search while players wonder who will be their third head coach in a year. 
  • Cristobal is named interim coach, which upsets defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. 
  • The players sign a petition asking the administration to make Cristobal the permanent head coach, which probably didn't make Leavitt feel too grand. 
  • Rumors start to swirl about Leavitt leaving and some of the rest of the coaching staff moving on, as well. 
  • Cristobal is officially named head coach on Dec. 8.  
  • The Ducks coaching staff begins the process of trying to salvage the recruiting class while also preparing for a quick turnaround to play Boise State in just eight days.
  • Senior running back Royce Freeman announces that he will not play in the bowl game, news that senior running back Kani Benoit said after the game that the team already knew was coming. 
  • The Ducks take the field against a team with inferior overall physical talent but plenty of determination and stability, and not contending with major distractions.
  • Oregon falls behind 24-0 and never recovers. 

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When you list it all out like that it what we saw on Saturday makes perfect sense. There is a fine line between being great and being mediocre. Oregon, when it had that swag, looked amazing at times. Mix in the nine-day stretch they experienced prior to the Las Vegas Bowl and you get what you saw on Saturday. 

It would be easy to point the fingers at Cristobal's coaching. But he, like his team, was also placed into an unfair situation. He went from orchestrating the running game as the co-offensive coordinator and line coach to running the team. Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo went from coordinating the passing game for Taggart, who called plays, to calling the plays himself.

Saturday's game shouldn't be given too much credence in terms of predicting the Ducks' future under Cristobal. Oregon will have eight months to get things situated before next season, which begins with three cupcake games. 

Plus, it's not as if we don't have two somewhat recent examples from the past to back up the idea that Saturday was just a bad day not a prelude to disaster. And it just so happens that one example involves Boise State while the other includes the Las Vegas Bowl. 

In 2006, the Ducks looked even worse than they did Saturday during a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl (Oregon should never return to this game) during a 7-6 season only to bounce back the following year and contend for the national title before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down for the season with a knee injury. 

In 2009, Chip Kelly made his debut as Oregon's coach at Boise State and lost 19-8 before righting the ship to lead UO to the Pac-10 championship in 2009. 

Maybe Oregon, under Cristobal, could make a similar rebound from Saturday to find great success. 

"We've got to get back to work once we come back off the break and re-establish ourselves and recognize the good things that were accomplished this year, and the things that have to be made better," Cristobal said. "And we will. We will focus on that and go forward."

Time will allow the Ducks to do so with a much clearer focus. 

Ducks can't afford to crap out in the Mario Cristobal Bowl

Ducks can't afford to crap out in the Mario Cristobal Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Saturday's game should be viewed by Oregon as the Mario Cristobal Bowl played in Las Vegas, Nev. 

Cristobal needs this win. UO's administration needs this win. Most of all, the players need a victory in order to validate why they went to bat for Cristobal with a petition asking that he be elevated from co-offensive coordinator to head coach last week after Willie Taggart jumped ship for Florida State. 

"We definitely feel the need to go in there and show the administration, as well as everybody all around the country, that they made the right decision in picking coach Cristobal to be the head coach," Oregon sophomore center Jake Hanson said. 

That need is real, and it raises the stakes for Oregon (7-5), making this about as close to a "must-win" as a middling bowl game matchup could be. 

Let's face it; the Oregon program and most of its fans believe that the Ducks are above the Las Vegas Bowl.  To them, this is the program of Kelly, LaMike, Mariota, Rose Bowls, Fiesta Bowls and national title games. 

The Vegas Bowl, and the like, is for chumps, not Ducks. With so many bowl games and only six wins needed to qualify for these glorified exhibitions, it's easy to dismiss most of these postseason contests. This bowl certainly falls into that category. Heck, senior running back Royce Freeman won't even be bothered with playing in this event. This will be the lowest bowl game the Ducks will have appeared in since losing 38-8 here to BYU in 2006. 

Yet, here Oregon is, in Sin City, desperately searching for its first bowl victory since the 2014 season that ended in the national title game. The Ducks (7-5) are also looking for some validation that the program is headed in the right direction.

Boise State (10-3) is the opponent. The Broncos are champions of the Mountain West Conference. That's not even Power Five. BSU shouldn't be on Oregon's level, record be damned. Surely the Ducks have got this one in the bag.

Well, they'd better. For a program that built its brand and success through a lineage of connected coaches, the Ducks appear to be a white-hot mess in desperate search of some footing. 

Reasons exist to believe that Cristobal, despite his 27-47 record, could lead the Ducks back to the top. Oregon bypassed chasing after bigger names because athletic director Rob Mullens - skewered after Taggart, his handpicked guy, departed - decided to roll the dice on Cristobal and maintaining some continuity.  

Should Cristobal fail, Mullens would have whiffed twice in finding a replacement for Mark Helfrich, who went 37-16 in four seasons but was fired after one losing season, albeit a horrific one at 4-8. 

Losing Saturday won't mean that hiring Cristobal was a mistake. But it certainly would create doubt, in at least some, that would linger all offseason. A loss could also lead to further deterioration of UO's recruiting class once ranked No. 1 and No. 5 respectively on top websites before Taggart left. Now the class sits at No. 9 and No. 10 after six four-star recruits withdrew commitments. 

Winning on Saturday, however would send the Ducks into the offseason with momentum and an even stronger belief that Cristobal is the guy. Rallying the team from the disappointment of losing Taggart and through not having Freeman to take down a solid Boise State club, and having 14 starters returning next season will raise hopes that a 10-win season is on the horizon. 

"It's huge," Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. "We just had a coaching change and we're very confident in the guy we have. Everyone is so supportive of him and I know that everyone is going to play their heart out for him."

They have no choice. 

Crosby to play in Las Vegas Bowl to honor mass shooting victims

Crosby to play in Las Vegas Bowl to honor mass shooting victims

LAS VEGAS - Oregon senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby will play in Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State to honor those killed and injured during the mass shooting here on Oct. 21.

Crosby, a native of Las Vegas, Nev., could have followed the lead of senior running back Royce Freeman and not played in order to avoid a potential injury that could harm his NFL Draft status.

Instead, he announced today via Instagram that he will play and wear No. 58 rather than his usual No. 73 in order to honor the 58 people who lost their lives on when a man opened fire from Mandala Bay Resort and Casino onto concert goers across the street. Another 546 people were injured. 

Crosby did not meet with the media today, but Oregon coach Mario Cristobal talked about Crosby's decision. 

"Tyrell is a very special individual and a talented football player," Cristobal said. "This is kind of a homecoming for him and obviously the events of the past have really had a tremendous impact on him."

Having Freeman on the field will certainly lessen the impact of losing Freeman. 

"For us, obviously we're through the roof excited that he is participating," Cristobal said. "He's had his best week of preparation that he's had all year. I know this means a lot to him and all of the people among his friends and family that know him out here."

Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said Crosby is the type of player that players gravitate toward. 

"He's a leader," Herbert said. "For him to come back and play in this game is huge for our offense. I know that everyone is super excited to have him back."

The game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

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USA Today

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman made what had to be a tough decision for him to sit out Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. 

He made the wise decision, even though it might appear to be selfish on the surface. 

"This is hard for him, now," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said today prior to practice at Bishop Gorman High School. "This is not an easy thing for a guy like that."

Freeman, who practiced with the team on Wednesday, was not made available for comment today.

Freeman leaves Oregon as its all-time leading rusher (5,621 yards) and the Pac-12 Conference's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (60). He has given 947 carries to the program, a total that's also a record. Going out a winner in a bowl game was probably enticing for Freeman but the risk of injury isn't worth the reward. Few will remember or care who won the Vegas Bowl within days after it ends. An injury could hinder Freeman, projected to go in the third or fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, for the rest of his career. 

Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby would be wise to follow suit. Cristobal said Crosby would announce his intentions on Friday. Projected by many to be a first-round pick, Crosby could literally be risking $10 million or more by playing in the Vegas Bowl. A serious injury could knock him out of the first round and into the later rounds, as it did former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who tore an ACL during practice prior to the 2014 Rose Bowl. He ended up getting drafted in the seventh round and never fully regained health in his knee. He is now out of the NFL. 

NFL-bound players electing to not play in their team's bowl game is a growing trend. Former Last season, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and LSU running back Leonard Fournette sat out their respective team's bowl games. 

Cristobal is not in favor of this development. 

"I like to see key players play," Cristobal said. 

That doesn't mean he isn't with Freeman on his decision. 

"Am I disappointed in him? No, I'm not," Cristobal asked. "Do I want to see him play? Absolutely. But I stand by him just like I gave him my word and I don't break my word for nobody."

Cristobal said the entire team backs Freeman, as they should 

"They understand that this family thing is not just talk," Cristobal said. "This family thing is real. This family will stick together, support each other and we'll press forward."

Oregon's running game should be just fine on Saturday. When Freeman went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter against California on Sept. 30 the Ducks still won 45-24 and rushed for 328 yards and six touchdowns.

In 2016, after Freeman went down with a foot injury at Nebraska, the Ducks managed to rush for 336 yards and five touchdowns. Crosby was lost for the season in that game. 

Interestingly, following practice offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo met with the media and when asked about Freeman's decision said that he was unaware of the situation. 

"It's unfortunate," he said. "Obviously, Royce is such a big part of who we area. But guys are going to made decisions based on the betterment for their life. Royce has done an awesome job for us. We're going to miss him...but just like when he went down, we have to find a way to pull together."

The Ducks will lean on senior Kani Benoit, redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James, who will likely be next year's top back, junior Taj Griffin and freshman Darrian Felix. 

There is plenty of talent there to win with making Freeman's decision ever more on the mark as being the right move for his future.