Last season, Oregon’s philosophy for rotating between three upperclassmen running backs was simple: Ride Royce Freeman.
Freeman received 39 percent of all rushing attempts, 151 more touches than Tony Brooks-James, who finished second for the Ducks.
But now Freeman is gone, and Brooks-James is the guy with, by far, the most experience at running back. The Ducks have a history of featuring a strong No. 1 guy, and while head coach Mario Cristobal has stated Brooks-James is the starter, the Ducks used six different running backs in the opener against Bowling Green.
Part of that decision can be attributed to the game being a blowout, but some of it is because the running back depth chart is far from settled.
“You want to find a guy and roll with him if you can,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said during fall camp. “You don’t want to be in a place where you’re subbing by person or personnel. You kind of tip your hand when you do that.”
Brooks-James was the frontrunner to be that guy. He provided a nice change of pace behind Freeman, but he needs to prove he can play a different role this season.
Mastro said he hopes Brooks-James can play down after down throughout the season. “He’s never been asked to be an every down back,” Mastro said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we play four or five guys a game, so if he can be that one guy, that’d be great.”
During the first half against Bowling Green, when it wasn’t yet a full blowout, Brook-James finished with two fewer carries than sophomore CJ Verdell, and two more than Darrian Felix.
So, Oregon might not be settled on who its top backs should be.
“We want to really spread the ball out a little bit, give each guy a turn,” Cristobal said. “It’s hard to do that every single game, but today we felt it was necessary to get all those guys involved in some way, shape or form. … For the most part, they had some pretty good success, and whatever formula works to keep moving the chains and scoring points, we’re going to do.”
Mastro has stated that ultimately they will ride with a guy who is hot, and Cristobal believes it’s is still Brooks-James who will get more playing time.
“It’s gonna be as it relates to how we can be most productive, how can we be most successful on Saturdays, and we do believe that will entail [Brooks-James] touching the ball more,” Cristobal said.
Fewer running backs may touch the ball as the season progresses and the more talented runners become clear, but they all have confidence in each other.
“We are all capable of doing what starting running backs are capable of doing,” Felix said.
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