Royce Freeman

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

Ducks' defense excelling with greater challenges ahead

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Whenever the down marker flips to "3" on opposing offenses, Oregon's punt return team jumps to attention and the offense becomes antsy. It's becoming a pavlovian response.

That's because 79 percent of the time this season, the Ducks' defense has stopped opposing teams from converting on third down, a dramatic shift from last season. And it all starts with attitude and desire. Oregon senior safety Tyree Robinson said he urges the defense on every third down to dig deep for that extra burst of energy that allows them to play harder so they can get off the field. 

“I think guys have really bought into that , which kind of makes us a special defense right now,” Robinson said. 

According to Oregon sophomore linebacker Troy Dye, defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt tirelessly preaches the importance of making plays on third down, or, the "money down," as he calls it. 

“We have to go out there and make that money,” Dye said. 

Right now, the No. 24 Ducks (3-0) are filthy rich. Opposing offenses have converted just 21.3 percent of the time on third downs, best in the Pac-12 Conference. Last year Oregon allowed a 48.5 percent conversion rate, 11th in the Pac-12. 

The Ducks' defense has shown dramatic improvement over last season in every category imaginable. A low third down conversion rate for opponents and eight turnovers forced have been two of the most important areas of improvement. They lead directly to the team allowing 23 points per game, down from 41.7 a year go. 

Wyoming (1-2) on Saturday managed to convert just 4 of 15 third down attempts during Oregon's 49-13 victory. Two Saturdays ago, Nebraska converted just 2 of 14 attempts during a 42-35 loss at Autzen Stadium. 

"It's great to see those guys get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense,” UO coach Willie Taggart said. 

He credits the success to the defense doing a great job of studying opponents and having an idea of what they like to do on third down. Also, they have done a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Oregon already has 10 sacks after getting just 25 last season. The Ducks sacked Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen twice on Saturday while pressuring him all evening. A projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Allen managed just 64 yards passing against Oregon. 

“When you can get to the quarterback, and he didn’t have time to pass the ball, that’s what usually happens," Taggart said. "And if you can get to him early, he will start looking at the rush and I thought that’s what he did.”

Dye said the defense entered this season with something to prove and a chip on its collective shoulders following such a poor season in 2016 when the Ducks ranked 128th in total defense. Robinson said the experience gained last year by so many young players forced into action has paid off this season. 

“It’s awesome to have a defense that we have so much confidence in," UO quarterback Justin Herbert said.

But will it last? Oregon hasn't exactly faced quality offenses to date. Wyoming's 14.3 points per game ranks 120th in the nation. Nebraska ranks 63rd at 31.7 points per game. Oregon won 42-35 over Nebraska on Sept. 9. The Cornhuskers (1-2) lost 21-17 to Northern Illinois on Saturday. 

The Ducks begin Pac-12 Conference play this Saturday at Arizona State (1-2). There are 11 teams in the conference averaging better than 31 points per game, including the Sun Devils. Most teams have great passing offenses that will challenge the Ducks' Pac-12 leading 89.7 passing defense efficiency rating. 

ASU junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is averaging 308 passing yards per game with seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

The Pac-12 is going to be a challenge, one the UO defense is looking forward to facing. 

“Oregon is not just an offensive school anymore," Dye said. "We play defense, too.”

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: One away from setting TD mark

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: One away from setting TD mark

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman rushed for 157 yards on 30 carries during a 49-13 win Saturday at Wyoming to move to within less than 500 yards of breaking the Ducks' career rushing record held by LaMichael James.

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break LaMichael James' record of 5,082 (2009-2011). Freeman ranks second in the Pac-12 in rushing at 153.3 yards per game, trailing Stanford's Bryce Love (174.7). His 460 rushing yards rank third in the nation. 

Enjoying watching Freeman's hot start is the man who hands him the ball, sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert.

“It’s really fun to watch," he said. "Sometimes I hand the ball off and don’t carry out my fake and just watch.”


Here is a quick look at where Freeman's chase stands:


James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 157 yards on 30 carries and scored three touchdowns at Wyoming (1-2).  

Previous games: Freeman rushed for 153 yards against Nebraska and 150 against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman now has has rushed for 460 yards rushing in three games.  

Career total: Freeman has 4,606 yards career rushing yards. 

Freeman needs: He is 477 yards away from breaking James' record. 


James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman rushed for three touchdowns.   

2017 total: Nine.

Career total: Freeman has 53 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Freeman needs: He is tied with James and needs one more rushing touchdown to sit alone atop the career mark. 

Next up: The Ducks play at Arizona State (1-2) Saturday in Tempe, Ariz. 

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: 153 yards closer to James' record

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: 153 yards closer to James' record

EUGENE - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman rushed for 153 yards on 29 carries Saturday against Nebraska to move closer to breaking LaMichael James' career rushing mark. 

Freeman also scored two touchdowns during the 42-35 win over the Cornhuskers at Autzen Stadium. 

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break LaMichael James' record of 5,082 (2009-2011). 

Here is a quick look at where Freeman's chase stands:


James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 153 yards on 29 carries and scored two touchdowns vs. Nebraska.  

Previous games: Freeman Rushed for 150 yards vs. Southern Utah. 

2017 total: Freeman has rushed for 303 yards in two games.  

Career total: Freeman now has 4,449 yards rushing. 

Freeman needs: He is 634 yards away from breaking James' record. 


James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman rushed for two touchdowns.   

2017 total: six. 

Career total: Freeman has 50 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Freeman needs: He is four away from breaking James' record. 

Next up: The Ducks play at Wyoming (1-1) Saturday in Laramie, Wy.

Oregon's plan for Royce Freeman: "Feed the horse."

Oregon's plan for Royce Freeman: "Feed the horse."

The Oregon Ducks once again have a very deep group of running backs but that won't prevent coach Willie Taggart from making the most out of his top ball carrier, senior Royce Freeman.

“Royce is our guy," Taggart said Monday. "Feed Royce then everybody else will get their carries as they go. We're going to feed the horse."

That horse went for 150 yards on 23 carries and scored four touchdowns during a 77-21 win over Southern Utah on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks rushed for 348 on the night with redshirt senior Kani Benoit gaining 107 on just seven carries. Redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James gained 32 on nine carries.

All told, eight Ducks carried the ball with some attempts going to receivers on fly sweeps, a play Taggart used prominently while at South Florida. But all of that came against an FCS program. Rushing yards won't be as easy to come by against stronger competition, such as Nebraska, which plays at Oregon on Saturday afternoon. 

In such games, Freeman must be the guy, just like LaMichael James and Jonathan Stewart were before him. Both former Ducks running backs played alongside strong backups but each carried the load while producing huge seasons. Taggart plans to follow that same pattern with Freeman, even though he said the Ducks are fortunate to have three starting-caliber running backs. 

“The beauty for us is that we don't have to change our offense because one guy is in the game," Taggart said. "We can continue to run the plays we want to run."

Oregon simply prefers to run most of them with Freeman. 

”And if Royce gets tired we will put the next guys in," Taggart said. 

Maybe no game in recent memory better defines Oregon's long-time depth at running back - thanks to the recruiting of former position coach Gary Campbell - than last year at Nebraska when Freeman went down early with 31 yards on five carries during the 35-32 defeat. 

In his place, Benoit went for 100 yards on six carries, Brooks-James gained 37 yards with three touchdowns, and Taj Griffin rushed for 68 yards on eight carries, including a 50-yard scoring run. 

Still, Freeman is Oregon's starter for a reason. The 235-pound running back, who should break James' career rushing record sometime in November, if not earlier, inflicts punishment on defensive players that pays off later in games. The fact that he can get a rest here and there only makes him stronger late in games while defenses begin to fade. 

"It definitely does (take the pressure off of me,)" Freeman said following Saturday's game. "And I feel like it takes pressure off of (running backs coach Donte Pimpleton), as well, knowing that he has a deep backfield and that if any one of us gets tired or any one of us has any problems out there, we have more than capable other versatile running backs behind me."

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Royce rolls for 150 vs. Southern Utah

Royce Freeman record watch 2017: Royce rolls for 150 vs. Southern Utah

EUGENE - The return of Oregon running back Royce Freeman gave the senior a second chance at becoming the Ducks' all-time leading rusher. 

Freeman entered the season with 4,146 career rushing yards and needing 937 to break LaMichael James' record of 5,082 (2009-2011). 

Freeman got off to a good start Saturday with 150 yards on the ground during a 77-21 win over Southern Utah at Autzen stadium.  However, he began strongly last season before injuries derailed his chances of breaking James' record in three seasons. 

Freeman began the 2016 season with 3,203 career yards after rushing for a program-record 1,838 in 2015. That figure broke James' single-season record of 1,805 set in 2011.

Freeman needed 1,880 yards in 2016 to break James' career mark. Freeman gained 294 over the first two games of the season before an injury all but ended his chances of breaking James' record. A sternum injury suffered against Washington sent Freeman on the worst stretch of his career and he finished the season with 945 yards.  

Many figured Freeman would enter the NFL Draft but new coach Willie Taggart convinced him to return for his senior season. 

Record, or no record, James should still be regarded as the greatest running back in program history after Freeman is done.  

James set his mark on 771 carries over three seasons while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Freeman will have needed four seasons and he's already carried the ball 726 times, gaining 5.9 yards per attempt. 

Freeman is also likely to break James' all-time rushing touchdown mark of 53. 

Here is the start of our weekly update on Freeman's record chase. 


James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman rushed for 150 yards on 23 carries and scored four touchdowns against Southern Utah. 

2017 total: See above. 

Career total: Freeman now has 4,296 yards rushing. 

Freeman needs: He is 787 yards away from breaking James' record. 


James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman scored four times on the ground.  

2017 total: See above. 

Career total: Freeman has 48 rushing touchdowns for his career. 

Freeman needs: He is six away from breaking James' record. 

Next up: The Ducks play host Nebraska (1-0) Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Freeman last season at Nebraska rushed for 31 yards on five carries before going down witth a foot injury and missing the next game at home against Colorado.  

The Willie Taggert era begins with offensive fireworks, swag surfin' and optimism

The Willie Taggert era begins with offensive fireworks, swag surfin' and optimism

EUGENE - Oregon coach Willie Taggart had already started his postgame press conference Saturday night in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex following the team's record-setting, 77-21 victory over Southern Utah when senior cornerback Arrion Springs walked through a door leading to the seated podium where Taggart sat answering questions. 

"Hold on," Taggart told a surprised Springs. "It's my time."

It certainly is. And his time began with a bang.

The Ducks in their first game under their new coach put on a dizzying show that sparkled from start to finish.

The offense roard to a stadium-record 77 points behind senior running back Royce Freeman and sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. Even the defense showed signs of improvement under new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. Many much tougher opponents await (Nebraska visits Autzen next week) but at least for one night, the Ducks looked like a team prepared to make a strong turnaround after last year's 4-8 nightmare that led to the firing of Mark Helfrich and the entire staff.  

For Taggart, the night brought many thrills. Before the game, he stood in the tunnel with his team fighting nerves while thick, white smoke began rising from the tunnel's entrance as Oregon's mascot got onto a motorcycle for his traditional ride onto the field. 

"When I heard the motorcycle, I got goosebumps," Taggart said. "I was ready to go then. I wanted to put on some pads."

Before the smoke had cleared the stadium, redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James began the process of returning the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Along the way he raced past Oregon's sideline with Taggart joining in on the sprint, the former college quarterback's 41-year-old legs doing their best to keep up.  

The rout was on. That the Ducks dominated 77-21 was of no real consequence. The Thunderbirds (6-5 last season) play in the Big Sky Conference. Oregon is supposed to win this type contest by a number that reflects the $500,000 the Ducks paid Southern Utah to show up.

How Oregon won, however, shouldn't be glossed over when considering the prospects for the rest of the season. There were some good and some bad but mostly the former, and all of it proved to be exciting. 

The Ducks' offense, the envy of many in the nation over the previous 10 seasons, certainly appeared to be a bit different under Taggart but it still produced the same types of fireworks. 

Up-tempo. Strong running game. Maybe a bit more deep balls thrown than usual.

Freeman rushed for 150 yards and four touchdowns. Herbert played a virtually flawless game, completing 17 of 21 passes for 281 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions.

The offensive line, beefier and stronger after an offseason of intense workouts designed to make them that way, tossed around Thunderbirds defender as if they were, well, FCS players.

"I thought they did what they were supposed to," Taggart said before flipping thorugh the game book searching for rushing statistics.

"Let's see here, about 348 yards rushing," he said. "Yeah, I think they did a good job."

Oregon gained 701 yards of total offense. 

The Oregon defense, however, displayed some of the same warts one would expect to still exist after ranking 128th in the country last season. That said, the group at least played with fire, excitement, speed and tenacity. They just need to still work on actually being good. 

After allowing all 21 points in the first half and 254 yards of total offense to the Thunderbirds, the Ducks' defense became tougher in the second half, holding Southern Utah to 109 yards and zero points.

The only real glaring problem were the team's 12 penalties for 115 yards.  

"We've got to get better with those penalties," Taggart said.

No doubt. Those penalties could have proven costly against a legitimate opponent. 

Then there was the atmosphere. During breaks in the action some players on the sideline, including those not padded up but in jerseys, would perform the swag surfin' dance to the 2009 song of the same title by a F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz).

"That song brings energy to anybody," Springs said. "It doesn't even matter."

The dance involves swaying back and forth to the beat. Many used a white towl to emphasize their movements. 

That display added a little sparkle to the night and almost made it appear to be more of a party than a football game. 

"Our guys were fired up," Taggart said. "There was a lot of energy. It wasn't artificial. It was real juice. 

Nobody should take anything about Saturday to be an indication that the program is back to its championship ways just yet. 

This is still a young team that will face plenty of oppoenents who could have handled Southern Utah the same way. Arizona, after all, won 62-24 over Northern Arizona, also a Big Sky team. 

Still, Saturday was a great start to the Taggart era. No doubt. The question is, will the Ducks be in position to swag surf their way into contention in the Pac-12 North division?

Oregon RB Royce Freeman to be added to Doak Walker Award watch list

Oregon RB Royce Freeman to be added to Doak Walker Award watch list

Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman will be added to the Doak Walker Award watch list today, according to Chris Perry, spokesperson for the prestigious award given annually to the best running back in the college football.

As it turns out, Freeman's name was left off of the initial 61-player list because Oregon had not submitted his name to Doak Walker officials.

Oregon's sports information department has gone through a transition this summer with long-time director Dave Williford retiring and being replaced by Jimmy Stanton. 

The Doak Walker Award sent out its initial request for nominees on June 19. Players can be nominated through October. Universities are entrusted to submit qualified candidates based on certain criteria award officials trust the programs to filter through, Perry said. 

Freeman meets all of the criteria but his name had yet to be submitted. Stanton took over the department in late June but has been in the process of relocating and preparing for the upcoming season.  An Oregon source said that nobody in the department was aware of the request for nominations. 

CSN reached out to the Doak Walker Award for clarification as to why Freeman, who has rushed for 4,148 yards and 44 touchdowns during his career, only to find out that the the Ducks had not submitted his name.

But, all is well now. No harm done. 

Oregon Spring game: Herbert and Team Free win 34-11

Oregon Spring game: Herbert and Team Free win 34-11

Team Free 34, Team Brave 11

How Team Free won: For starters, Team Free had quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for touchdown passes to lead his team to the win Saturay at Autzen Stadium. 

While it's unfair to judge a quarterback competition based on a spring game, the fact is that the sophomore, who started seven games last season, appeared to be vastly superior to Team Brave's quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen and freshman Braxton Burmeister

Herbert threw two touchdowns in the first half. The first went for 13 yards on a throw to senior receiver Darren Carrington II that ended a 75-yard opening drive for Team Free. 

In the second quarter, Herbert found Carrington for a 30-yard touchdown to make the score 14-3. 

On the other side, Jonsen had a couple of highlight plays in the first half. He escaped pressure and then flipped a pass into the left flat to redshirt junior running back Tony Brooks-James for a gain of 19 to the Team Brave 47. Later, Jonsen threw deep down the left sideline to sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell for 44 yards to the Team Free 30. That set up 36-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Zach Emerson.

But other than that, Jonsen wasn't very impressive. He misfired on a couple of passes and had a deep ball intercepted when Team Free senior cornerback Arrion Springs snatched the ball out of the sky and fell to the ground at the 16. 

Burmeister flashed some serious running skills and certainly has a quality arm, but he also looked like a freshman. In the first half, he threw too early on a pass to senior receiver Charles Nelson, the pass was tipped and intercepted by freshman defensive back Billy Gibson.  

Herbert went 16 of 26 for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Jonsen was 5 of 15 for 86 yards with one interception. Burmeister was 3 of 7 for 63 yards and was sacked four times. He did rush for 57 yards on 

The game was limited to 24 minutes of running clock in the second half. 

Top performers: Brook-James gained 71 yards on 18 carries in the first half but was banged up on a pass play when Burmeister hung him out do dry on a deep ball and Springs hit him as the ball arrived. 

Brooks-James returned to action and in the fourth quarter scored on a one-yard run. He finished with 84 yards rushing and caught three passes for 43 yards. 

Freshman wide receiver Darrian McNeal caught four passes for 54 yards for Team Free.

Punter Blake Maimonte averaged 45.2 yards on four punts with a long of 49. 

Mitchell had three receptions for 75 yards for Team Brave. 

Carrington had three touchdown on four receptions for 116 yards. 

Royce Freeman rushed for 43 yards on 12 carries and a 1-yard touchdown for Team Free.

Plays of the game: Senior running back Kani Benoit, who finished with 105 yards on five carries,  took a hand off in the third quarter, cut left to open field then turned it up before crossing at an angle to the right side of the field to finish off a 95-yard socring run for Team Free to make the score 28-3. 

In the fourth quarter, Herbert heaved a deep pass down the right sideline toward a well-covered Carrington. But he leaped over the defender to haul in the pass for a 44-yard gain to the 17-yard line. 

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert goes all Joe Namath before spring game

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert goes all Joe Namath before spring game

Oregon sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert laid down a bit of a prediction for the Ducks' spring game, which will be played at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.   

Herbert, who went No. 1 overall to Team Free in the spring game draft, dropped a few names of players on his team. They include senior wide receiver Darren Carrington II and senior running back Royce Freeman. Essentially, the Ducks' best three offensive weapons from last season are on the same team.

Team Fire should score plenty of points. But will it win the game?

"Yeah," Herbert said while barely cracking a smile. "We'll win."

Team Fire is being coached by special teams coordinator Raymond Woodie while safeties coach Keith Heyward will head Team Brave, to be quarterbacked by redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen. 

Oregon coach Willie Taggart said he likes to see the players get a little trash talk rolling but also wants them to focus on the main goal of the game. 

"Once everything happened and the teams were picked, you start to hear guys talking a little bit of trash about the game and what they're going to do," Taggart said. "You hear coaches talking a little trash. It's all fun and dandy but we also want to get better."

Taggart said he hopes to see a lot of plays being made by his young team after four weeks of installing a new offense and a new defense. He also wants to see which players will rise to the occasion in a game atmosphere. 

"I'm excited to see our team go out and actually play in front of people," Taggart said. "I've always said, 'the spotlight does strange things to some people.'  Some people show up and show out. Some people hide. We want those guys that are going to show up and show out. The guys that are going to hide, we probably need them to stay in the locker room."

Herbert, the odds-on favorite to be the starter next season, said he likes how the team has progressed during spring drills, especially after everyone became more comfortable within Taggart's offense. 

"I thought we did a lot of good stuff near the end," he said. "I think we started slow."

As for the game, Taggart recognized that Team Fire might appear to be a bit loaded. But, he added that he doesn't believe that means they are going to win. 

"(Fire's roster) looks stacked but the best team usually wins, not the best players," Taggart said. 


Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Oregon's running backs learning new tricks

Running back drills during Oregon's spring practices have been a bit light on the running backs. 

Senior Royce Freeman, redshirt senior Kani Benoit, and redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James have been the only three going through drills under new running backs coach Donte Pimpleton in what appears to be a thin crew of familiar faces. But appearances can be deceiving. The Ducks remain very much stacked at the position regardless of the overall numbers. And the group is as close as ever.

“We’re like brothers,” Freeman said.

Oregon's running game should look quite familiar next season in new coach Willie Taggart's no-huddle offense, but there will be more of an emphasis in running straight ahead (downhill) and being physical, both along the offensive line and for ballcarriers, especially the 235-pound Freeman.

Taggart, who has reviewed all of last season's game film, said he believes Freeman must run behind his pads better. Meaning, he must be more physical and allow his size and pad level to go through defenders rather than provide tackling angles that benefit defenders. The same points were made about Freeman under former running backs coach Gary Campbell. But in the team's old system, the running game relied a bit more on finesse than this new system under co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal, who came to Oregon from power-running Alabama. 

Cristobal wants the offensive line to be more physical and has added some downhill running plays to Taggart's offensive scheme that the new run game coordinator wants to see Freeman exploit with his size and strength by delivering "body blows," similar to wearing down an opponent in boxing. 

“Come the fourth quarter, your yards per carry and your knockdowns you have, your trunk yardage plays and explosive plays should increase by a significant amount,” Cristobal said. "We want to make it so by the fourth quarter people don’t want to tackle Royce Freeman.”

Or, any other running back on the team for that matter. Cristobal said the entire group has shown toughness this spring. 

“You want to be around guys that enjoy collisions,” Cristobal said. “That search and seek opportunities to be physical and to be tough and to establish a mindset.”

Oregon's depth at running back will receive a jolt next fall. Junior Taj Griffin, who injured his knee late last season, could return at some point, or he could redshirt to save the year of eligibility. Either way, the Ducks will also welcome in freshmen running backs, C.J. Verdell and Darrian Felix. Cyrus Habibi-Likio could also play running back but is expected to start out on the defensive side of the ball. 

So, depth shouldn't be an issue. Then again, does a team really need more than Freeman, Benoit and Brooks-James to be successful? Not likely.

“You know you’re gong to get the same type of talent level [no matter who is] going in,” Benoit said. “There’s not going to be a drop off.”

Freeman said the group was reminiscing the other day about having been together for so long. Benoit will enter his fifth season at UO while Freeman and Brooks-James enter their fourth. The bond among the group, Freeman, said is strong. Benoit said that sense of brotherhood trumps any potential hard feelings about playing time. 

“We all feed off each other," Benoit said. "We all try to make each other better."

Pimpleton, Benoit said, has been working out well and in some ways is like Campbell in how he relates to the players.

“Really calm, but he gets his point across,” Benoit said. “We accept that well. He’s not a yelling coach, he’s not a berating coach. He tells you what you need to do, if not then you’ll come to the sideline. He’ll just waive you over.”

Pimpleton, who along with other assistant coaches who aren't coordinators hasn't been made available for interviews this spring, is putting a heavy emphasis on running backs learning to recognize defenses and fully understand the blocking schemes. 

"That helps us run a lot better knowing where our lanes are and where the holes are going to be," Benoit said.