Darrian Felix

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges

Oregon's promising 2017 season ended with a wild two weeks that saw Willie Taggart depart for Florida State, coach Mario Cristobal take over the program, recruits decommit left and right and then the Ducks fall flat during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, the 2018 season could see Oregon return to Pac-12 prominence. That is, if a lot of variables play out in the Ducks' favor. We will take a position-by-position look at the team to discuss what must happen in order for Oregon to rise again in 2018. 

Other position entries: QuarterbackRunning backsReceivers/Tight endsOffensive lineDefensive backs; LinebackersDefensive line.   


Today: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 2)...: RB Tony Brooks-James emerges. 

Key departures: Senior Royce Freeman moved on to the NFL after breaking nearly every school record imaginable.  Versatile senior backup Kani Benoit is also gone.  

Projected 2017 starter: Tony Brooks-James, RSr., (5-9, 175),

Key backups: Darrian Felix, Soph., (5-11, 178); C.J. Verdell, RFr., (5-8, 192); Taj Griffin, Sr., (5-11, 178); Cyrus Habibi-Likio, RFr., (6-0, 208). 

What we know: Freeman is gone. Let's all take a moment to reflect on his greatness.

Now, let's take a moment to reflect on what his absence could mean for Oregon.


Then toss in the loss of Benoit. 

Double yikes!

Oregon hasn't lost this much running back talent in one offseason since maybe ever. But, in typical Oregon tradition, there is a potentially great running back waiting in the wings. 

Brooks-James has rushed for 1,557 yards in his career on 226 carries (5.9 per carry) and has scored 14 rushing touchdowns. If he managed to put up those same numbers in one season, the Ducks will be in business. 

Essentially, Oregon needs Brooks-James to become the next Kenjon Barner, who after backing up LaMichael James for three seasons, rushed for 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior in 2012. 

What we don't know: Can Brooks-James be that guy? And, will he truly need to?

At a listed 178 pounds, it might be a lot to ask of James to carry the ball 20 times per game and survive the season. If he isn't up to the task, the Ducks do have options, albeit of the unproven variety. 

Felix saw minimal time as a freshman and gained 182 yards. The real wild card is Verdell, who by all accounts is the next great UO running back in waiting. He redshirted in 2017 due to injuries and ample depth already in place. 

We can't ignore Griffin, who was moved to wide receiver last season but still received some carries. He has 848 career rushing yards in his career on 6.1 yards per carry. 

Habibi-Likio has a lot of ground to make up on the depth chart in order to crash the rotation next season. But he does offer more bulk at 208 pounds than every other running back, except maybe Verdell, who packs 192 pounds on his 5-8 frame.  

What must happen for Oregon to contend: Clearly, Oregon must be able to run the ball well in order to succeed. Ideally, the Ducks will have a clear No. 1 back, and that man should be Brooks-James. But he doesn't have to match the level of play displayed in the past by the likes of Jonathan Stewart, James, Barner or Freeman. Brooks-James could simply be what Byron Marshall was in 2013 when he rushed for 1,068 yards and 14 touchdowns while Thomas Tyner chipped in 711 rushing yards and De'Anthony Thomas went for 594. 

If Oregon gets that type of production out of its top three running backs in 2018, the Ducks will be just fine. 

Next up: The 2018 Ducks will contend if (Part 3)...: Someone compliments WR Dillon Mitchell. 

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

USA Today

Oregon running back Royce Freeman wise to sit out Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS - Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman made what had to be a tough decision for him to sit out Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. 

He made the wise decision, even though it might appear to be selfish on the surface. 

"This is hard for him, now," Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said today prior to practice at Bishop Gorman High School. "This is not an easy thing for a guy like that."

Freeman, who practiced with the team on Wednesday, was not made available for comment today.

Freeman leaves Oregon as its all-time leading rusher (5,621 yards) and the Pac-12 Conference's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (60). He has given 947 carries to the program, a total that's also a record. Going out a winner in a bowl game was probably enticing for Freeman but the risk of injury isn't worth the reward. Few will remember or care who won the Vegas Bowl within days after it ends. An injury could hinder Freeman, projected to go in the third or fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, for the rest of his career. 

Senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby would be wise to follow suit. Cristobal said Crosby would announce his intentions on Friday. Projected by many to be a first-round pick, Crosby could literally be risking $10 million or more by playing in the Vegas Bowl. A serious injury could knock him out of the first round and into the later rounds, as it did former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who tore an ACL during practice prior to the 2014 Rose Bowl. He ended up getting drafted in the seventh round and never fully regained health in his knee. He is now out of the NFL. 

NFL-bound players electing to not play in their team's bowl game is a growing trend. Former Last season, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and LSU running back Leonard Fournette sat out their respective team's bowl games. 

Cristobal is not in favor of this development. 

"I like to see key players play," Cristobal said. 

That doesn't mean he isn't with Freeman on his decision. 

"Am I disappointed in him? No, I'm not," Cristobal asked. "Do I want to see him play? Absolutely. But I stand by him just like I gave him my word and I don't break my word for nobody."

Cristobal said the entire team backs Freeman, as they should 

"They understand that this family thing is not just talk," Cristobal said. "This family thing is real. This family will stick together, support each other and we'll press forward."

Oregon's running game should be just fine on Saturday. When Freeman went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter against California on Sept. 30 the Ducks still won 45-24 and rushed for 328 yards and six touchdowns.

In 2016, after Freeman went down with a foot injury at Nebraska, the Ducks managed to rush for 336 yards and five touchdowns. Crosby was lost for the season in that game. 

Interestingly, following practice offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo met with the media and when asked about Freeman's decision said that he was unaware of the situation. 

"It's unfortunate," he said. "Obviously, Royce is such a big part of who we area. But guys are going to made decisions based on the betterment for their life. Royce has done an awesome job for us. We're going to miss him...but just like when he went down, we have to find a way to pull together."

The Ducks will lean on senior Kani Benoit, redshirt junior Tony Brooks-James, who will likely be next year's top back, junior Taj Griffin and freshman Darrian Felix. 

There is plenty of talent there to win with making Freeman's decision ever more on the mark as being the right move for his future. 

Desperate Ducks running out of time to find answers

USA Today

Desperate Ducks running out of time to find answers

PASADENA, Calif. - The Oregon Ducks left Southern California on Saturday a desperate football team, and their coach, Willie Taggart, departed as a man searching in vain for answers following a 31-14 to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. 

Three consecutive lopsided losses by the combined score of 113-31 have made it clear that this young and battered team is all but incapable of producing a winning product without starting quarterback Justin Herbert, who has missed three games with a broken collarbone. 

There is plenty of blame to go around. Select any section of the team and you could find fault within. But the bottom line is that all of the team's woes can be linked right back to the absence of Herbert. 

The offense, aside from the yard-churning play of senior running back Royce Freeman, is a disaster. The defense, brilliant at times, isn't skilled or wise enough to carry a team in such a high-scoring conference. 

All of these realities left Taggart somewhat exasperated while he explained mistake after mistake made by his young quarterback, freshman Braxton Burmeister, and the rest of the team.

“Those are the headaches that you get right now," Taggart said in a frustrated tone. "But, you understand that it’s going to get better."

If it doesn't in a hurry, Oregon (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) could miss a bowl game for the second consecutive season. The Ducks need two victories to reach six and become eligible. Right now, three of the team's four remaining games appear to be imminently losable without Herbert. 

It shouldn't be possible that one player could mean so much to a team. Even in 2015 when the Ducks lost quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., they managed to score 140 points over three games with backup Jeff Lockie as the starter. Taggart would give almost anything right now for that type of offensive production. 

The positive sign Saturday was that the team certainly looked better than it did during a 49-7 loss at Stanford last week. Burmeister, who passed for 23 yards against the Cardinal, connected on some promising throws on Saturday but still amassed just 74 yards through the air. UCLA knew the Ducks couldn't throw well and stacked up against Freeman, who gained 160 yards on 29 punishing carries to become the program's all-time career leading rusher

Oregon fell behind 14-0 before Burmeister manufactured two scoring drives that required 15 plays each and ended with him scoring on the ground. Such long drives covering 6:03 and 5:16 were a departure for UO. But it worked and gave the Ducks hope. In the second half, however, the mistakes resurfaced. Drives died. UCLA (4-3, 2-3) added some scores and that was that.

“We can’t do that to ourselves," Taggart said of the miscues. "I think for us, we’ve got to play cleaner and smarter, all around.”

Especially when you don't have a quarterback that can make plays. Oregon, and most teams for that matter, is not capable of playing so perfectly that they can overcome not having a playmaker at quarterback. The Ducks had to be nearly perfect against a team led by a vastly superior quarterback in Josh Rosen, held to a reasonable 266 yards passing and two touchdowns. 

Taggart said the team entered the game with three goals they needed to reach in order to win the game: Don't turn the ball over. Force turnovers. Reduce penalties. They only accomplished the latter, committing just three for 15 yards after entering the game averaging 10.2 per game, while coughing up two turnovers and forcing zero. 

The fumble was committed by freshman running back Darrian Felix on the Ducks' opening drive and converted into a touchdown. The interception came in the third quarter with the Ducks trailing 24-14. The receiver on the play, Taggart said, ran the wrong route but Burmeister forced a pass deep to him anyway. His underthrown ball ended up in the hands of UCLA cornerback Colin Samuel. 

“We’re taking our lumps right now with a lot of these young guys playing but those guys will continue to get better and we’ll find a way,” Taggart said. 

The biggest positive, according to Taggart, was that his team fought back from being down 14-0 in the first quarter to tie the game at halftime. 

“I thought our guys showed a lot of fight,” Taggart said.

However, when things went south in the second half, so did the team's resolve. 

“Right now I think from a mental standpoint we have to get ourselves right, staying positive, especially when things go wrong," Taggart said. 

When asked if Herbert could return next week at home against Utah, Taggart said he had no idea. Notice that he didn't say "no."

If Herbert returns, the Ducks would have a strong chance to win at least two more games and become bowl eligible. But that is hardly a given. If he remained out until the Ducks host Arizona (4-2, 2-1) on Nov. 18, UO would be in serious jeopardy of not reaching a bowl game for the second consecutive season. 

That certainly was not the plan when Taggart took over for Mark Helfrich, fired last winter. Starting quarterback or no starting quarterback, Taggart was expected to at least get the Ducks back to the postseason. A lot must change in order for that to happen. 

“I believe in this team and love this team and I feel like this team will get it corrected," Taggart said. "We’ve just got to stay the course, stay positive and find the way.”

The opportunities to do so are drying up quickly. 

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

How Oregon's recruits fit in: RBs - Three freshmen create logjam

Oregon coach Willie Taggart last week signed his first recruiting class, which Rivals.com ranked No. 18 in the nation. Now CSN is taking a look at how each new recruit could fit into the Ducks' plans next season.

Other entries: Quarterbacks, Wide receivers/Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive lineLinebackersDefensive backs.

Today: Running backs.

New Ducks: Darrian Felix (5-11, 194, Fort Myers High School, Fort Myers, Fla.),  C.J. Verdell (5-9, 195,Mater Dei Catholic High School, Chula Vista, Calif.) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (6-1, 211, St. Francis High School, Mountain View, Calif.).

Projected 2017 starter: Royce Freeman, Sr., (5-11, 230). 

Key backups: Tony Brooks-James, RJr., (5-9, 185), Kani Benoit, RSr., (6-0, 210) and Taj Griffin, Jr., (5-10, 180).

The situation: Oregon is set to return four running backs that combined for nearly 2,200 yards rushing last season.

For that reason, finding playing time for any of the three incoming freshmen could prove to be impossible.

None of them has a chance to beat out Freeman for the starting job. Chances are that Brooks-James is too experienced and talented to be unseated at No. 2.

The only way one freshman would have a chance to rise into the rotation would be if Benoit transfers and/or Griffin is slowed in his return from the knee injury he suffered late last season.

While all three incoming freshmen were three-star recruits, Verdell is the highest-rated among them. Rivals.com had him as the 26th-ranked running back in the nation. He rushed for 2,399 yards and 36 touchdowns on 9.2 yards per carry as a senior.

Habibi-Likio, who says he also hopes to play linebacker or safety, wasn't quite as productive as Verdell but brings more size and power to the party. 

Felix is a burner with more size than Griffin. 

The verdict: Unless something gives, Oregon will have seven scholarship running backs on the roster next fall. That means the three freshmen will redshirt if all four returning backs are healthy and ready to go. If not, one of the freshmen could make a mark as a backup or on special teams. But figure that at least two freshmen running backs will redshirt in 2017.