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.