Tony Brooks-James

Oregon RB Royce Freeman returning for senior year

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Oregon RB Royce Freeman returning for senior year

New Oregon football coach Willie Taggart might have just landed his biggest recruit for the 2017 season.

Running back Royce Freeman will return for his senior season, the university announced today, giving Taggart the use of the team's best offensive weapon.

Freeman, baring a major injury, will almost assuredly break LaMichael James' career rushing record of 5,082 yards next season. Freeman has 4,148 for his career and needs 934 to tie James.

He entered this season with a chance to break the record but experienced his worst year of his career, rushing for 945 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games. He lost two games due to an injured leg but also ran poorly upon his return and suffered a bruised sternum against Washington in the sixth game of the season.

Counting that game against the Huskies, Freeman in four consecutive outings gained just 136 yards on 53 carries. He ultimately lost his starting job to Tony Brooks-James prior to the team's loss at USC before earning it back. Freeman finished the season strong with three 100-yard performances over the team's final three games. 

Oregon sources told CSN two weeks ago that it was a high probability Freeman could return if he received a low NFL Draft grade. Although his official grade is unknown, one draft expert said several scouts told him they projected Freeman to be selected in the third or fourth round. A scout told CSN that Freeman certainly had a down season compared to his first two years and likely would have been a middle-round selection in 2017.

Freeman now has a chance to raise his draft stock. However, his lack of elite speed is an issue. Freeman has great size at 230 pounds but does not possess great speed.

Former UO running back Jonathan Stewart played at Oregon at 235 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine at 4.48 seconds, which helped him get selected in the first round. Freeman is not projected to run nearly that fast, which will certainly continue to hurt his stock.

However, a strong senior season certainly couldn't hurt him. Every round matters and Freeman could play his way into making more money on his rookie contract in 2018.

Something is wrong with Oregon RB Royce Freeman

Something is wrong with Oregon RB Royce Freeman

LOS ANGELES - Oregon running back Royce Freeman didn't express displeasure with having lost his starting job to Tony Brooks-James for the Ducks' game Saturday at USC.

In fact, Freeman said he understood why he didn't start the team's 45-20 loss to the Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"Tony deserved to start," Freeman said. "He's been performing really well. (Running backs Gary Campbell) explained that to me. I've just got to improve."

Freeman didn't make a case for regaining his starting job while delivering a fourth consecutive poor outing with 38 yards on 10 carries on Saturday. Over the last four games, Freeman has amassed an anemic 136 yards on 53 carries. When pressed further about why his play has dipped so dramatically, Freeman went on to deliver several other bland answers that didn't come close to explaining how two months ago he entered the season with a chance to break the program's all-time rushing record and has since become a backup. 

Now, he is second on Oregon (3-6, 1-5 Pac-12) in rushing and is coming off the bench. Even more alarming is that he doesn't seem alarmed by this development. 

This all begs the question: What's going on with Freeman? Has he simply checked out on a disappointing season?

Brooks-James rushed for 25 yards on Saturday after gaining 241 over the previous two games. Brooks-James' performance in prior games, Freeman said, earned him the start on Saturday.  

"Tony has had a lot of production out there," he said. "So they rewarded him with the start, which is rightfully so. I'm just going to pick up my game."

Oregon rushed for just 85 net yards against the Trojans, whose front seven dominated the Ducks' offensive line. So Saturday's troubles were not all on Freeman or Brooks-James. Still, Freeman hasn't been himself for awhile.   

Freeman bruised his sternum during the team's 70-21 loss to Washington on Oct. 8 and hasn't been the same since. However, he insists the he has been healthy since after the team's 52-49 double-overtime loss at California on Oct. 21. Yet his performance has not picked up. That led to Brooks-James seizing the starting job on Saturday. 

The problem is that nobody can really explain what Freeman's problem has been. Brooks-James has been good, but he is not on par with Freeman as an all-around running back. 

"I thought he ran hard tonight," Oregon offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said of Freeman. "It was more of just a case where Tony was playing really good. We thought he deserved an opportunity to start off the game."

If Freeman is healthy but simply not performing, one would have to at least raise a question about his desire. To that Lubick said he has seen no signs of Freeman not playing hard.

"His attitude has been great," Lubick said. "We told him, 'hey, we're probably going to start Tony.' He's the type of guy that if he is hurt he's not going to tell you because he's so tough."

Freeman said he thought he did some good things on Saturday. 

"I feel like I've been rushing pretty hard," he said. 

Lubick said at times Freeman has been the victim of bad blocking. That he was certainly banged up in the recent past. 

But none of that explains losing his starting job to Brooks-James. That points to something different. 

Something that remains a mystery. 

Herbert could lift Helfrich as the coach did the young QB at Cal

Herbert could lift Helfrich as the coach did the young QB at Cal

BERKELEY, Calif. – Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert dropped to one knee near Oregon's sideline after his final pass resulted in an interception that gave California a 52-49 win in double overtime Friday night at Memorial Stadium.

The play, which resulted in Cal's team storming the field, left the Ducks dejected after they had fought back from a three-touchdown deficit.  

UO coach Mark Helfrich was the first to rush to Herbert. The coach lifted up his freshman quarterback and offered support. Soon, several players swarmed in to console Herbert, who had thrown six touchdown passes on the evening.  

Helfrich was there for his quarterback in his first moment of crushing defeat where he had made the critical mistake to cost Oregon a victory. In the bigger picture, however, Herbert could ultimately lift Helfrich from the ashes of what is rapidly becoming the worst season for Oregon (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) since at least 2004 (5-6) and maybe as far back as 1991 (3-8).

Many are calling for Helfrich's head despite the fact that he guided the 2014 Oregon team to a Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl victory and a berth in the national championship game. Troubles at quarterback and a pitiful defense in the two seasons since have cast a shadow over Helfrich's ability to oversee recruiting and develop talent. 

Herbert's rise is step one toward erasing that perception, ridiculous on its surface given that Helfrich recruited and helped develop Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota. Herbert is Oregon's next Mariota.

The kid is legit, and then some.

One of the greatest compliments paid toward Herbert since his arrival this fall from Sheldon High School is that he always appears to be an unflappable perfectionist, much like Mariota was. Then factor in Herbert's 6-foot-6 athletic frame, nimble feet, uncanny pocket savvy, quick release, rocket arm and keen accuracy, and you have the makings of a potential superstar. 

Oregon has traditionally only been great when it had at least a very good quarterback running the show. Joey Harrington, Kellen Clemens, Darron Thomas and Mariota all led the Ducks to double-digit win seasons, and all into national contention, as did Dennis Dixon in 2007 before a knee injury ended his season with Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation. 

Herbert is next in the line of great UO quarterbacks, and the prediction here is that barring injury he will be a Heisman finalist in 2018 and a first-round NFL draft pick in 2019 or 2020. 

Herbert's composure and strong mental makeup have been on display in his two starts, although Herbert's youth might have ultimately led to the final decision by the coaches that ended Friday's game in defeat.

More on that later. First, back to Herbert's moxie. 

During a 70-21 loss to No. 5 Washington on Oct. 8, Herbert never appeared to be rattled. He threw an interception on the first play of the game, contributed to the team falling behind 21-0 and could never pull the Ducks back into the game, but he didn't fold. He kept pressing. Kept playing. Kept going, and he eventually threw two eye-popping touchdown passes. 

On Friday night, Herbert struggled early and the Ducks fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter and trailed 34-14 in the second half. Once again, Herbert didn't crumble. Instead, he become red hot and his six-yard touchdown pass to Charles Nelson gave UO a 35-34 lead in the fourth quarter. 

Through it all, Herbert displayed ridiculous talent. The type or talent that thrusts a player past a seasoned veteran like Dakota Prukop and a redshirt freshman like Travis Jonsen, rated coming out of high school as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com. 

Herbert, a former three-star recruit, completed 22-of-40 passes for 258 yards against Cal. He threw touchdown passes on the run, he threw them over the middle, he gunned them on post patterns, and in the case of Nelson, he displayed a level of confidence typically unseen by a freshman.

On the play, Herbert looked left for Carrington who ran a rather interesting slant pattern that fooled nobody, then without hesitation turned his attention to the other side of the field to locate Nelson, also running a slant, and fired a bullet low where only the receiver could get it between two defenders. 

The ball zipped right past Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, helpless to defend the hard-thrown ball (foreshadow alert). 

With the Ducks trailing 42-35, Oregon went to Nelson again, this time on a post pattern from the right side run underneath a deeper route. Nelson caught the pass and ran the rest of the way for a 42-yard touchdown that tied the game at 42 each. 

Once again, Kunaszyk was out of position after biting on a play action and not dropping far enough to his left to get in the way or the pass (more foreshadowing).

In overtime, Oregon went to the exact same play, this time with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jalen Brown running the post underneath a deeper route. The result was a 20-yard touchdown pass that gave Oregon a short-lived 49-42 lead in the first overtime. 

Once again, Cal's Kunaszyk got caught out of position. 

Cal tied the game on its next possession then settled for a field goal in the second overtime to make the score 52-49, setting up Herbert for a potential game-winning score. 

Once again, Oregon went back to the same play that had resulted in touchdown passes to Nelson and Brown.

This time, Brown ran the post underneath a seam route from tight end Pharaoh Brown. But unlike on the two touchdown passes, Kunaszyk didn't bite as hard on play action, he read Herbert's eyes and then got in front of the pass intended for Brown who ran a post. 

Herbert said linemen blocked his vision and he never saw Kunaszyk, who briefly bobbled the pass before securing the ball and running for a few yards before going down. 

“It worked the past couple of times and looked very similar on that play," Herbert said. "I just didn’t see the linebacker and he got under it and made a good play.”

Said Brown: "I was surprised that the linebacker jumped it. I thought I was going to get the ball no matter what."

Helfrich on Sunday night said of Herbert on the interception: "I think he kind of predetermined that he was going to go to that side. There was another route that was in the progression and the first guy was open. That's one of those things where you're kind of hoping for what's gonna happen rather than attacking and reacting to what you see."

A freshman mistake made by a talented kid who played nothing like a freshman.  

Following the interception, Herbert briefly ran after Kunaszyk then stopped after the linebacker gave up. That's when a dejected Herbert went down to one knee and Helfrich ran to him.

The fact Oregon went to the same play over and over could be because of Herbert's youth and limited knowledge of the playbook. At some point, one must consider that the defense is going to figure out a play. In this case, Kunaszyk certainly did. Herbert, however, didn't recognize him the way the linebacker recognized the play. 

“I’d do the exact same thing at the end and trust him to make the play," Helfrich said Friday night. 

Players have the same confidence in Herbert and that's why they rallied to him after the defeat. 

"We wanted to show him that we've got his back," Brown said. "He has a great heart and a great passion for this game.  

“I still trust him with everything in me,” redshirt sophomore running back Tony Brooks-James said.

As they should. Herbert is the savior. He might not be able to save this season, but he is what Oregon needs moving forward, and his presence as a budding talent should buy Helfrich and the coaching staff time to rebuild this thing despite the swirling insanity among those actually considering jettisoning this coaching staff after one bad season just two years removed from a national title run. 

The man to lead Herbert to great heights, as he did Mariota, is Helfrich. He and his staff deserve the chance to rebuild the defense, which will return 10 starters next season, and see Herbert's development through, as well as the development of a young offensive line. If given that chance, the Ducks will rise again. 

“It’s a step in the right direction but definitely not the way we wanted it to end,” Herbert said.

No, but nights like Friday will only make Herbert stronger and better, and the Ducks will one day benefit from the lumps they are taking this season. 

Ducks fall short on scoreboard but not in heart at Cal

Ducks fall short on scoreboard but not in heart at Cal

BERKELEY, Calif. - Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, eyes glassy and voice appearing to waiver, appeared to be emotionally drained and a bit choked up Friday night following his team's 52-49 double-overtime loss at California. 

Following two weeks of intense team introspection, talk of his job being in jeopardy, many questioning the Ducks' desire and character, and whether Helfrich had lost their respect, the Ducks put forth a gutsy effort at Memorial Stadium.  

The team showed heart, no quit, and flashed a glimpse of what could be a bright future. Ultimately, however, the Ducks fell short once again, losing their fifth consecutive game and third by three points to fall to 2-5 on the season. 

This defeat, players and Helfrich say, hurt the most because of all the team had gone through in the two weeks after losing 70-21 at home to No. 5 Washington before the bye week. Oregon desperately needed a win Friday. Not just to help its chances of becoming bowl eligible, a seemingly impossible task at this point, but to validate all they had strived to achieve as a team from the neck up since the debacle against the Huskies. But it wasn't meant to be. 

That fact sunk in for Helfrich, who only expressed admiration and pride in how his team played and has grown.  

“Love ‘em," he said. "They competed their butts off. But, at the same time, that makes it that much harder. That result and that near miss. But they competed their butts off. Bunch of times over the last couple of weeks they could have splintered. Could have fallen apart. But they didn’t.”

Oregon trailed Cal 21-0 early in the first quarter and 34-14 early in the third quarter. Given the team's four-game losing streak and apparent team strife, the Ducks could have easily gone into the tank and lost 55-21 to the Golden Bears (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12). 

But they didn't. Instead, UO adjusted at halftime and found a groove in the second half. The defense began making stops and the offense, led by freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, started routinely finding the end zone. Oregon led 35-34 early in the fourth quarter, lost the lead 42-35 then tied the game to force overtime at 42-42. 

The Ducks had a chance to win trailing 52-49 in the second overtime when Herbert, who threw six touchdown passes during his first road start, misread a coverage on a pass over the middle that was intercepted, ending the game.

The loss left the team mentally exhausted but not totally defeated. They found the good in what ended up being a tough night to swallow. 

"I think the biggest thing was that we were down in the beginning, and to come back and fight and brawl to the end no matter what showed that we've got some grittiness to us," wide receiver Jalen Brown said. 

The Ducks need every bit of that trait in order to win four out of their final five games to become bowl eligible. Oregon (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) has yet to win a conference game and still faces tough outings against Arizona State, USC, Stanford and Utah before ending the season at Oregon State, which defeated Cal two weeks ago. 

"We can get it," Brown said positively of the team's chances of finishing 6-6 to become bowl eligible. 

It certainty appears to be that the team hasn't quit despite some outside perceptions to the contrary. 

“One of the things about this football team, and whatever you want to believe, those son of a guns have stayed together," Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said. "They’ve fought. They’ve fought with each other. They fought hard. That’s what tears your heart out.”

Said running back Tony Brooks-James: “Everyone gave it everything they had. So, from everyone saying we quit, it’s just lies.”

At the heart of the team not quitting is the very man some have claimed the team quit on. Hoke said that the much-maligned Helfrich has done a great job of keeping the team together during trying times. 

“I think it tells you a lot about this football team and also what Mark has done to keep them all going in the same direction," Hoke said.

That effort includes daily communication and encouragement to the team, Hoke said, efforts that Brooks-James said has kept the squad from falling to pieces. 

“I would honestly say that without coach Helf, a lot of players would have just lost it,” Brooks-James said. “He’s one of those coaches that can bring you back into the program and not have you just on the outside because he cares about the little things. Any time something goes wrong, he blames it on himself when in actuality there are little things that we could have done better. He just takes all of the pressure off the players and puts it on himself."

Brown agrees. 

"I think every single day he goes out of his way to show that he cares and that he is going to have our back no matter what," Brown said. "It's not all on us, it's also on the coaches and we're all one unit."

Oregon's season, baring a miracle 4-1 run the rest of the way, will likely end at Oregon State in the 120th Civil War. 

The good news is that the team's fight appears to have returned, a star quarterback has been discovered and most of the key players are young and will return next season. 

That list, and maybe a couple of more victories, might be all Oregon has to cling to the rest of this season. 

UO RB Royce Freeman to return at WSU

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Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

UO RB Royce Freeman to return at WSU

Oregon junior running back Royce Freeman has a chance to rewrite the programs rushing record list this season. Each week we will provide an update on his progress. 

EUGENE - Oregon junior running back Royce Freeman will return to action after missing one game with a lower leg injury, Oregon running backs coach said today following practice. 

"He's been practicing full, so I expect him to be 100 percent," Campbell said following Tuesday's practice. 

Freeman, not available for comment, left Oregon's loss at Nebraska on Oct. 17 in the first quarter with 31 yards. He then was held out of Saturday's loss to Colorado at home. 

Missing seven quarters of action, and the team losing two games, have pretty much killed Freeman's chances at becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate. 

The action missed had also severely hurt Freeman's chances of breaking Oregon's career rushing record held by LaMichael James.

Freeman is 1,555 yards away from James' record of 5,082 set from 2009 through 2011. 

Freeman began the year with 3,203 career yards after rushing for a program-record 1,838 yards in 2015. That figure broke James' previous single-season record of 1,805 set in 2011. 

Here is a statistical breakdown of Freeman's run at both the yardage and touchdown records:

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman sat out the team's 41-38 loss to Colorado. The week prior at Nebraska he rushed for 31 yards before leaving the game in the first quarter with an injury during the 35-32 loss. 

2016 total: Freeman has gained 325 yards on 37 carries this season. 

Career total: Freeman has 3,528 career yards. He needs 92 to move into second place all time ahead of Kenjon Barner (3,623)

Freeman needs: He sits 1,554 yards away from breaking James' record. 

Average needed per game (13-game season): With nine games remaining, Freeman must average 172.7 yards per game to break James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman sat out. 

2016 total: He now has four rushing touchdowns. 

Career total: Freeman sits at 39 for his career. He needs two touchdowns to tie Barner (41) for second place. 

Freeman needs: He is 14 rushing touchdowns away from breaking the record. 

Next up: The Ducks play at Washington State (1-2). 

UO RB Royce Freeman to sit out Colorado game

UO RB Royce Freeman to sit out Colorado game

Oregon junior running back Royce Freeman, who left last Saturday's 35-32 loss at Nebraska in the first quarter with a lower leg injury, will not play today when the Ducks host Colorado at Autzen Stadium, according to sources. 

Freeman, who was just announced as the starter during pregame and appeared on the field during warmups in full uniform, but not in cleats, is expected to make a full recovery from the undisclosed injury. 

Kani Benoit was announced as the starter. 

Freeman gained 31 yards on five carries at Nebraska before leaving the game. Oregon's running game performed well without him and should again today. 

Benoit had 100 yards on six carries with a long of 46 and a touchdown run of 41 yards. Redshirt sophomore Tony Brooks-James scored three touchdowns while carrying the ball seven times for 37 yards. Sophomore Taj Griffin had eight carries for 71 yards and scored on a 50-yard run.

 

Oregon's RB depth of Benoit, Griffin and Brooks-James ready for action

Oregon's RB depth of Benoit, Griffin and Brooks-James ready for action

EUGENE - Oregon running back Royce Freeman will get most of the carries, gain most of the rushing yardage, score the most rushing touchdowns and receive the most attention from the media and opposing defenses. 

But it would be unwise to sleep on his supporting cast.  The trio of redshirt junior Kani Benoit, sophomore Taj Griffin and redshirt sophomore Tony Brooks-James should be considered starting-caliber backs that are simply stuck playing behind te 235-pound force of nature that is Freeman. Still, they plan to be heard. 

“We want to be one of the best RB groups in the country and we’re going to show it this year,” Griffin said.

While Freeman, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, will be chasing LaMichael James' career rushing record of 5,802 yards (Freeman needs 1,880) the backup trio will be looking to make individual marks of their own on the season for No. 24 Oregon. 

Each got their feet wet last season with Griffin darting his way to 570 yards on 7.4 yards per carry, Benoit, the primary backup then and now, gaining 364, and Brooks-James going for 288. That's 1,222 yards from the backup running backs. 

Such depth contributed to Oregon not signing a running back for the 2016 recruiting class, and it led to what running backs coach Gary Campbell called a relatively easy fall camp for his group. Something Benoit agrees, stating that the backs, now veterans, know what they are doing allowing Campbell "to spend less time in the meeting room with us.”

Knowing what to do and doing it with high efficiency are two different things, so the backs, Benoit said, have focused mostly on fine-tuning what they all learned last season in what for all three was their first taste of real college action.

Repeatedly, there have been reports out of practices of these three backs making the defense look silly. 

“Everybody at this level is talented and can make plays," Griffin (5-10, 175) said. "But it’s more so about who can be reliable and go out there and make the least amount of mistakes.”

Beniot (6-0, 210 pounds), a two-star recruit in 2013, has been a great story given that he developed from being somewhat of an overlooked recruit to becoming Oregon's No. 2 back. 

“I think I’ve improved a lot, especially when it comes to game time, being out there and just reacting to a lot of plays,” Benoit said. “I think I thought a lot before and now it’s just reacting.” Brooks-James (5-9, 185) said similar things about himself. That last year he learned how to be a college football player. This year, he is also more comfortable and ready to go.

As backups, each brings something different to the field. 

“Me and Tony are both fast,” Griffin said. “Kani and Royce are both strong.”

At the same time, Griffin and Brooks-James do pack some power while Benoit and Freeman are hardly slow. The versatility gives Oregon options.

“There’s obviously some special plays that we have in there for certain situations, certain teams and different schemes,” Benoit said.

All three believe they could be starters, and plan to play like one when their name is called. 

“Everyone is competing to always be that guy," Benoit said. 

Oregon has three men ready to be next at running back, a luxury most teams only dream of. 

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 2 - Freeman and RBs come up aces

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USA Today

Roses or Roulette?: Ducks Preview Part 2 - Freeman and RBs come up aces

College football is back! The Ducks begin fall camp on Monday so we're breaking down each position to determine if the Ducks, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, and their fans will be smelling roses as Pac-12 champs during a trip to the Rose Bowl, or placing bets at a roulette table prior to watching a sixth-place UO team in the Las Vegas Bowl. Each position is graded using the poker hand scale.  

Today: Running backs. 

Projected starter: Junior Royce Freeman (5-11, 230) returns for his third season as the lead back with school records and a Heisman Trophy in his sights.

Key backups: Redshirt junior Kani Benoit (6-0, 210), sophomore Taj Griffin (5-10, 175), redshirt sophomore Tony Brooks-James (5-9, 185).

Smelling like roses: Freeman should be a candidate for Pac-12 offensive player of the year, and possibly the Heisman Trophy, while he chases LaMichael James' career rushing record of 5,802 yards and his rushing touchdowns record of 53. Freeman needs 1,880 yards and 19 touchdowns to break both records. Should he do his thing and attack both records, Freeman would also be giving the Ducks what they need to contend in the Pac-12. 

Behind Freeman are three running backs all fully capable for rushing for 1,000 yards as a starter, giving the Ducks an embarrassment of riches. 

Griffin, the speedster, rushed for 570 yards last season while averaging 7.4 yards per carry. Brooks-James, also quite fast, gained 288 yards last season. Benoit, last season's primary backup, rushed for 364 yards.

Place your bets: Oregon could suffer two serious injuries at this position and still be okay. Any combination of the three backups would produce a quality running game capable of getting the Ducks to the Pac-12 title game. Should three go down, the Ducks could be in trouble. That scenario is unlikely.

Odds are: Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell always does a good job of balancing the workload for his starter while finding optimal spots to get production out of the backups. That will continue this season. This group will be fun to watch.  

Poker hand: Full house. The Ducks are stacked with both depth and versatility. Never before has Oregon had a more eclectic group of running backs. They will be a major strength of this team, and certainly are championship-caliber.  

Next up: Wide receivers/tight ends. 

Other posts: Quarterbacks; Wide receivers/Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive line; Linebackers..