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.