When running back Royce Freeman went down with a leg injury in the first quarter of Oregon’s 35-32 loss to Nebraska last Saturday, Oregon’s back-up running backs called an impromptu meeting among themselves on the sideline. They wanted to reassure Freeman that they had his back and would pick up the slack in his absence.
“[We wanted] just to let him know that we had to rock and go,” redshirt junior running back Kani Benoit said at practice Monday. “We knew what we needed to do and we took care of it.”
Freeman did not return to the game. But Benoit, along with redshirt sophomore Tony Brooks-James and sophomore Taj Griffin, combined for 205 yards and all five of Oregon’s touchdowns. They averaged 10.2 yards on a combined 21 carries. On the season, Freeman is averaging 8.8 yards per carry on 35 attempts.
It’s a smaller sample size for the backups, but Benoit was not wrong in saying they “took care of it.”
The Ducks did not win that game, but they proved how deep they are at the running back position. They can carry the load if Freeman will indeed miss more time.
As Oregon heads into conference play against Colorado this Saturday, questions still remain about Freeman’s health and availability against the Buffs. But so far this week, there have been encouraging signs.
Freeman was seen on Monday with a slight limp but no braces, wraps or boots on his leg.
Royce Freeman just walked by reporters. Limping but no boot or wrap pic.twitter.com/9Z2rG90zC4
— Gus Morris (@JustGusMorris) September 19, 2016
On Tuesday, Freeman left practice carrying his pads, an indication that he at least suited up for practice.
Royce Freeman exits practice pic.twitter.com/69DSTnujjh
— Aaron J. Fentress (@AaronJFentress) September 20, 2016
Griffin said Freeman was out taking a couple reps, but mainly doing “rehabilitation type things.” Griffin is confident Freeman’s absence will be short.
“He’ll be back soon — real soon,” Griffin said.
Oregon doesn’t comment on injuries, so the coaches haven’t said much regarding Freeman’s timetable for return. When asked about how Freeman was doing after practice on Monday, running back coach Gary Campbell said, “Well, he’s walking,” adding that he was “day-to-day.”
Head coach Mark Helfrich said that he “looked great” in practice on Tuesday, but remained vague about Royce’s outlook for the Colorado game.
“We’ll see,” Helfrich said regarding Freeman playing on Saturday.
As far as Oregon’s running game approach for the match-up against Colorado, don’t expect much to change. Oregon will still rely on a similar running approach as it did against Nebraska.
“I think what’s going to happen is kind of what happened on Saturday,” Campbell said. “All those guys are going to come in and do their part to make up for Royce’s absence.”
“It’s gonna be the exact same as Nebraska,” Benoit said. “[Freeman] has full, 100 percent trust in us and we know we just need to get the job done.”
For most of their careers at Oregon, the reserve running backs have played second fiddle to Freeman, who has had a solid lock on the starting job since stepping on campus in 2014. Now it could be their turn to shine in the spotlight.
Oregon is looking for a bounce-back performance after its loss to Nebraska, but Colorado will be no cakewalk. The Buffaloes gave No. 4 Michigan three quarters of trouble at the Big House.
Not having Freeman in a game like this could prove disastrous, but Campbell is not worried.
“Obviously we’d love to have Royce in there,” Campbell said. “But I think we’ve got capable guys who can make up for his absence.”
Campbell went on to say that, “We want to get the rushing yardage; we don’t really care who does it.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris