Immediately following Oregon football head coach Willie Taggart’s introductory press conference on December 8, one of his first player meetings was with his newly inherited star running back Royce Freeman. He wanted to either convince Freeman to stay for his final year at Oregon, or help him prepare for the NFL.
After two successful seasons at Oregon, Freeman spent most of the 2016 season injured. His production, that Ducks fans had grown used to during his time at Oregon, decreased significantly. The football team finished last season with their worst record since the 1991 season.
So Freeman decided to return to Oregon, and he did it with one main goal in mind: to rid himself of the memory of the previous year.
“Finishing on a better note than I did last year was something that was a personal vendetta I had,” Freeman said. “Going out there and just trying to leave my best product out there with one year of eligibility left.”
Another factor was his desire to graduate, something he accomplished this summer.
With a change in coaching staff this offseason, Freeman, who can finish his career with the most rushing yards in school history, had to decide whether to come back and play for Taggart in his first year leading the Oregon.
Before Taggart departed for the Christmas holiday several weeks after being hired, he made a stop in Imperial, California, home of the Freeman family.
“He expressed to me his feelings of why he was leaning towards going to the NFL,” Taggart said. “I explained to him where I plan on taking our football program.”
Freeman and Taggart did not have a personal relationship yet, but Taggart had some people in mind who could help Freeman make his decision on whether or not to turn pro. But he also went to his home for a reason, and that was to pitch Freeman on his vision for Oregon
“I couldn’t go back across the country without seeing him again,” Taggart said. “I reiterated the things that we’re going to do, and when we’re walking to the car he was like, ‘Coach I’m coming back.’”
Freeman’s return for his senior season means he has an opportunity to cap off his career by becoming Oregon’s all-time leading rusher. He’s only 936 yards away from LaMichael James’ school record 5,082 yards.
“It’d be very special,” Freeman said. “It’d be an honor and something I’d relish for the rest of my career. But I’ve got to take it step by step. I can’t get too ahead of myself.”
If he’s going to break the record, he’ll need to get back to the type of numbers he was putting up in 2015 when he ran for 1,836 yards, 17 touchdowns. Freeman was named a second team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.
He also put up quality numbers in 2014 when he ran for 1,365 yards, 18 touchdowns and was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.
His junior season looked like he was going to pick up right where he left off. In Oregon’s second game of the season against Virginia, he ran 21 times for 207 yards and two touchdowns.
The next week in Lincoln, Nebraska, his season began to fall apart. He suffered a knee injury in the second quarter of the Ducks game against Nebraska.
It was a nagging injury that never went away throughout the season, constantly limiting his opportunities to be productive. After getting in the end zone 35 times in his first two years as a Duck, he recorded just nine touchdowns in 2016. He was held under 50 yards in five games, which included a season-low 10 yards on 15 rushing attempts in a 52-49 double overtime loss to California.
Freeman has been putting in a lot of work in the offseason to get stronger as he recovered from his knee injury. He made headlines in July when a video appeared on Twitter of Freeman squatting 600 pounds.
“I mean when you get that high there’s no reason to just keep going, so I mean shoutout to Coach O and the strength staff,” Freeman said. “They’re just keeping me healthy and just working on the little things so we make sure I can play a complete season.”
Part of the challenge of staying healthy for Freeman this year will be getting quality play from the offensive line to create spots for Freeman to find yardage. Freeman will have the benefit of an experienced offensive line this year, with five guys returning that saw playing time last year.
Center Jake Hanson is on the Rimington Trophy watch list, the award for the nation’s most outstanding center. Senior Tyrell Crosby, who was also injured in 2016, was named to the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s top interior lineman.
An added wrinkle with this coaching staff is that Freeman is working with the offensive line this fall. Since Freeman doesn’t work with special teams, he can spend more time working with the unit that will be blocking for him all season. He’s not only practicing with the offensive line, but sitting in on meetings with them as well.
“It’s something we’ve always done with our backs,” Taggart said. “We feel the running back is an extension of the offensive line. I think the more they understand the way the line is taught to do things, the better they can be as a running back with setting up blocks.”
Pass protection is a key element of the position for running backs coach Donte Pimpleton, and something he’s stressed with not just Freeman but with all of his running backs.
“I don’t play when missing pass protection,” Pimpleton said. “Missing this and that will get the quarterback killed and knocked out of the game. We can’t have that. So, everywhere I go I’m real particular and we work mostly on pass protection more than anything.”
For Pimpleton, inheriting a talented back like Freeman for only one season can present some challenges in regards to how to coach him.
“He gets the technical stuff that he needs to do to be the lead back that he is and achieve his goals,” Pimpleton said. “Talent-wise he has it all. All the tools, he has it. It’s just tweaking and refining some of the things he needs to do fundamentally.”
Time will tell if Freeman’s decision to return was a wise one. As long as he stays healthy this season, he gets a chance to punctuate his time in Eugene by earning Oregon’s career rushing record, help his team try to rebound from a disappointing 2016 season and help kickstart the Taggart era of Oregon football.
Should Freeman do that, he’ll head off to the NFL as the most successful Duck running back in school history.
Follow Zak Laster on Twitter @zlast3445