Running Backs Preview: Freeman leads an elite unit looking to trample opposing defenses

If Oregon football is going to improve on last year’s four-win season, the team will need to rely on an experienced group of running backs.

The 2017 unit is led by senior Royce Freeman, who decided to put the NFL on hold and return for his senior season. Despite underwhelming last season due to a mix of injuries and a young offensive line, he still managed to rush for 945 yards in 11 games despite having four games in which he totaled 38 yards or less.

Under new head coach Willie Taggart, Freeman will be looking to get back to where he was statistically in 2015 when he set the Oregon single season rushing record with 1,845 yards. He needs just 937 yards this season to break LaMichael James’ career rushing record mark.

Team Brave running back Tony Brooks-James (20) carries the ball. The Oregon Ducks hold the annual spring game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. on Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Adam Eberhardt/Emerald)

Behind Freeman on the depth chart but still likely to see plenty of action is Tony Brooks-James, who saw an increased workload last season once Freeman began struggling. Starting in place of Freeman against Colorado, Brooks-James ran 16 times for 120 yards and a touchdown. He had three games of over 100 yards rushing and, filling in for Freeman, Brooks-James had a three-touchdown performance against Nebraska.

The extra playing time he saw in 2016 should help give Oregon that 1-2 punch that has been so successful for Oregon in recent years, from Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson to LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin will also be in the mix at running back. Last season Benoit’s best performance came when he put up 100 yards against Nebraska. He also missed three games due to injury. The Ducks will have explosive playmaker Griffin back. He suffered a knee injury in a November practice last season, but will be ready to go in 2017-18.

New to the Oregon program are incoming freshmen Darrian Felix and CJ Verdell. Both represent the future at the position, but given the depth, it will be hard for them to get touches.

Projected Depth Chart:

  1. Royce Freeman, Sr., 5-11, 231
  2. Tony Brooks-James, R-Jr., 5-9, 185
  3. Kani Benoit, R-Sr., 6-0, 211

We know the running backs are good. We’ve seen them in action enough to declare it. The success of the 2017 season will depend on this core group staying healthy.

Follow Zak Laster on Twitter: @zlast3445

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Zak Laster

Zak Laster

Zak Laster is a sports writer for the Daily Emerald. He covers volleyball, women's basketball, golf and baseball. He can be reached at [email protected]