The Oregon Ducks have benefited from some superstar performances over the past two seasons, first in quarterback Marcus Mariota in 2014, and then defensive end DeForest Buckner in 2015. Waiting in the wings to wow everyone in his junior season is running back Royce Freeman.
We will be talking frequently about this year's outstanding group of college running backs, including our look at why Stanford's Christian McCaffrey should be considered the Heisman front-runner. But Freeman is good enough to be considered right up there with the rest of the best.
He is incredibly productive
Freeman has posted excellent numbers in the two seasons we have graded every FBS college football game, and forced 44 missed tackles as a runner in 2014. That, coupled with his 2.5 yards after the carry average, helped him to a 5.4 yards per carry average.
It was a solid year, and there were also flashes that season of the eye-opening ability he possesses. Take the game against Washington as an example: Freeman carried the ball a season-high 29 times in that game, scoring four touchdowns and forcing four missed tackles. Of his 170 yards on the ground that day, 78 came after contact.
While 2014 was a solid season, with flashes of something much more, 2015 was the year where Freeman made a huge impact, and began to force himself into the conversation of the best running back in the nation. The Oregon offense had its early struggles, with quarterback Vernon Adams dealing with an injury and taking some time to find his feet after transferring from Eastern Washington. While Adams graded negatively in four of the first six games of the season, Freeman graded positively in all six, going on to finish every game of the 2015 season with a positive PFF grade. In fact, while Oregon struggled to click in the first six games of the year, Freeman has the third-highest overall grade among running backs, with only LSU's Leonard Fournette and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott grading better.
And extremely elusive…
What makes Freeman so special is just how difficult he is to bring down. He had the third-highest elusive rating (PFF's measure of how effective a running back is at generating yardage independent of his blocking) in the nation in 2015 at 108.6. Only UCLA's Paul Perkins (114.7) and Nevada's James Butler (111.5) had a higher rating in that regard.
Freeman forced 80 missed tackles on the ground, and another nine as a receiver. In fact, he forced at least four missed tackles as a runner in 11 of 13 games last season, including seven in the Alamo Bowl loss to TCU. Those are incredibly impressive numbers, and backed up by what he regularly displays on game tape, like on this touchdown run versus the Horned Frogs. He bounces an inside run to the outside before making a sharp cut to avoid three defenders and then run through a third for the touchdown:
… and powerful, too.
What's important to note with Freeman is just how strong of a runner he is — this is not a player who simply eludes tackles with quickness and speed. With a running style similar to former NFL and Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee, Freeman has the power to run through defenders, and drag them with him. It helps that he has a 229-pound frame to aid him in that regard, with Freeman's 3.8 yards after contact per carry average ranking 12th among all running backs in college football last year.
He has a similar body type to McGahee and, like him, Freeman can get the better of defenders by cutting past them or powering through them. Check out this example versus Oregon State when he rips his way through the middle linebacker's tackle attempt to gain an additional six yards after contact:
He is a valuable weapon in the passing game
If there's an area of improvement for Freeman this season, it's that he wasn't great in pass protection in 2015. He allowed a sack and eight hurries from 86 pass-blocking snaps in 2015, giving him a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 91.5, tied for 127th among the 149 running backs with at least 50 pass-blocking snaps last season.
The good news for Ducks fans, however, is that Freeman was better in 2014, ranking 60th of 161 backs with a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 96.1, allowing just five hurries from 97 pass-blocking snaps. If he can revert to this level of effectiveness in pass protection, then he'll be very valuable in the passing game in general and on third downs in particular, because he is an excellent pass-catcher.
Freeman was really effective as a receiver out of the backfield in 2015, racking up 340 yards on 26 receptions, with just one drop to his name. In fact, from the 44 catchable passes thrown his way over the past two seasons, Freeman has dropped just two. He is dynamic once he gets the ball in his hands as a receiver, having forced nine missed tackles on those 26 receptions.
The Ducks could make use of Freeman as a receiver split out wide or in the slot more frequently in 2016. He had just 34 such snaps last year, but that included a big catch downfield on a go route against USC (see below). While he should be the focal point of the Oregon offense as a runner, there's definitely opportunities for Oregon to get more use from him split out wide.
With a solid freshman campaign and an even more impressive sophomore campaign under his belt, Freeman is ready to mount a very serious run at the Heisman trophy — even pushing his fellow Pac-12 running back McCaffrey. The Oregon offense will run through him again in 2016, and with the player we've seen him become over the past two seasons, that's something that should have fans in Eugene very excited.