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.