After the Ducks’ 38-3 loss at Washington in early November, Royce Freeman spoke to the media with a football tucked under his left arm.
“Coach [Donte Pimpleton] makes us carry it around,” Freeman said. “It’s my duty to carry it until I get back to Eugene.”
If anyone has carried Oregon through the ups and downs of the past four years, it’s been Freeman.
Freeman has seen it all during his time at Oregon. He nearly cut his collegiate career short to head to the pros but ultimately decided to return for his senior season to play for head coach Willie Taggart. He returned to Oregon as a team captain, and he has served as a leader for the Ducks in his final year in college football, further cementing his place in Oregon history.
“He’s meant a lot,” Pimpleton said. “Most productive back in school history, you know, he’s a great guy on top of that which makes it even better. So when you get a guy like that, they don’t come around that often.”
Soon after Taggart took the job at Oregon, he traveled to Imperial, California — one of several trips Taggart took to the town of 17,000 — to meet with Freeman to try and persuade him to return to Eugene for his senior season. It took some convincing, but in the end, Freeman returned.
“He just came down so many times, it showed me his want for me to go to that school,” Freeman said after deciding to return. “I appreciated that because he came down to this remote place.”
At the start of the season, Freeman focused on getting the program back on track. The previous season was disappointing for both Freeman and the Ducks and featured a plethora of injuries and brutal losses. Freeman wanted to lead the once-top program back to glory.
That and the possibility of breaking Oregon records lured him back.
“It’d be very special,” Freeman said before the season on the potential of becoming Oregon’s all-time rushing leader. “It’d be an honor and something I’d relish for the rest of my career.”
Freeman achieved that feat in October, adding to an already exhaustive list of Oregon rushing records he owns. He’s currently Oregon’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and set the single-season rushing yards record in 2015. But exceeding LaMichael James’ 5,082 career rushing yards was the feather in the cap for Freeman.
“I’m pretty sure it means a lot to him, but he keeps it under wraps,” cornerback and Freeman’s former roommate Arrion Springs said. “I tried to bring it up to him like ‘congratulations,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ He’s just trying to keep working.”
With 1,243 yards on 206 carries this season, Freeman is miles ahead of everyone else on the team. The next best is Kani Benoit, who has 466 yards.
“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.”
At the start of the season, there was some gossip around the country, including mentions in Sports Illustrated, that Freeman could be a dark horse in the Heisman race after Freeman scored 10 touchdowns through the first four games.
That hype simmered down after Justin Herbert’s collarbone injury in late September led to a losing streak and ended any chance of Freeman’s name being in the hat for the biggest personal award in college football. Freeman hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown since Herbert’s injury.
At 238 pounds, mobility can be an issue for the 6-foot-tall back. However, Freeman has managed to show his speed, even drawing comparisons to Heisman Trophy runner-up and former Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, who Taggart coached during his time at Stanford.
“I tell you what, Royce has some speed,” Taggart said. “It’s pretty cool to have a guy that’s big, strong, that can run some people over and run away from people too.”
Freeman isn’t the fastest of Oregon’s running backs — Tony Brooks-James is the speedy back for the Ducks. There’s also Kani Benoit as part of the corps of the running back unit, which has been the Ducks’ lifeline ever since Herbert’s injury.
That injury put more emphasis on Oregon’s running game with freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister running the offense. Freeman took the reins. He has rushed for 626 of Oregon’s 1,600 total yards with Burmeister at quarterback. Burmeister threw for 352 over that same span.
While Freeman led the rushing charge, he also shared the load with his fellow running backs, highlighting the bond that the veteran unit has developed over the past several seasons.
“They’ve got a unique relationship because they’re all around the same year,” Pimpleton said. “They feed off each other and they listen to him and they listen to each other. They’ve got a good relationship on and off the field so that helps out.”
That good relationship has grown in part due to Freeman’s relaxed personality. His teammates and coaches describe him as “laid-back” and a leader by example who is always observant.
Once Freeman opens up, he can be funny, according to Pimpleton. But it’s hard to have those close to him give a “classic Royce Freeman story.”
When asked what Freeman’s legacy will be at Oregon, Pimpleton said it’s not a closed book just yet.
“We’ll see after these last couple games. He’s still got a couple things he can accomplish, so he’s gotta be right up there with the best of them,” Pimpleton said. “The things he’s done, the production he’s had — he’s an all-time great here.”
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter @ShawnMedow