In a college football season loaded with so many talented players at one position, it can be easy even for a recognized star to get lost in the shuffle. So before the 2016 season begins, here's a name to make sure you remember amid the seemingly endless supply of acclaimed running backs: Royce Freeman.
The word "underrated" doesn't seem right for a player voted second-team FWAA All-American and third-team AP All-American, for a first-team All-Pac-12 player who has been able to garner solid recognition for individual achievements in the first two years of his college career. So let's go with "underappreciated" instead.
Freeman, the Oregon junior, is one of the key members of one of the greatest running back classes ever. The recruiting class of 2014 featured LSU's Leonard Fournette, Georgia's Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, Florida State's Dalvin Cook, Oklahoma's Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and North Carolina's Elijah Hood, among others. While he has gotten recognition, Freeman has clearly been overshadowed. It's not hard to see why Freeman doesn't quite capture the attention of college football, nationally, as much as some of his contemporaries.
- Fournette was heralded as the best player out of high school, and he is living up to the lofty expectations. Compared to Adrian Peterson as a recruit, Fournette is a dominant running back with rare speed for a player of his size. He may be the preseason Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
- McCaffrey, a fellow Pac-12 North back, broke Barry Sanders' single-season FBS all-purpose yards record. He shined on returns, and he ran for 2,019 yards and caught 45 passes for 645 yards. It can be hard enough for one running back to break into the headlines with a lot of late kickoff times on West Coast; it's a lot harder for two, and McCaffrey easily overshadowed Freeman in the division.
- Cook is seen as the nation's most explosive running back, the one most capable of highlight-reel long runs. He had 13 carries of 30 or more yards last year, according to cfbstats.com, and is a dazzling tailback.
- Perine set the FBS single-game rushing record with 427 yards vs. Kansas as a freshman in 2014, then was the top tailback for a playoff team in 2015.
- Before getting hurt last year, Chubb starred week after week, seamlessly getting the Georgia running back torch passed to him from Todd Gurley.
- In addition to Freeman's class of 2014 peers, the last two years have seen nationally important starring performances from Heisman winner Derrick Henry and No. 4 overall draft pick Ezekiel Elliott.
These aren't the only factors in Freeman's relative anonymity compared to his peers. Freeman broke into the starting lineup as a true freshman, pushing 1,000-yard back Byron Marshall to slot receiver. He ran for 1,365 yards and 18 TDs that year, but in Oregon's path to the national championship, the spotlight belonged to Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. It didn't help that Freeman was a nonfactor in the two playoff games. Last season, attention gravitated toward several problems rather than the team's best player: the adventures in replacing Mariota, the lackluster play of the defense and Oregon's fall from grace most exemplified by the 42-point home loss to Utah and the historic Alamo Bowl collapse against TCU.
After an up-and-down start, Freeman went on to rush for over 100 yards in Oregon's last nine games, and he had over 100 yards from scrimmage in all 13 games. He rushed 283 times for 1,836 yards and 17 TDs, ranking fourth in rushing yards per game behind Fournette, Henry and McCaffrey. He also caught 26 passes for 348 yards and two TDs, placing him third in yards from scrimmage per game (168), behind McCaffrey and Fournette. Among players returning in 2016, only San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey has rushed for more yards the last two years than Freeman, who has 3,203 career yards and needs 1,882 yards to break LaMichael James' Oregon career rushing record of 5,082 yards.
The Ducks have cycled through phenomenal running backs in recent years. Since the turn of the century, James, De'Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner, Jonathan Stewart, Onterrio Smith, Maurice Morris and Reuben Droughns have been drafted, with Stewart, James and Barner garnering college All-America honors since 2007. There's also LeGarrette Blount, who had a suspension end his career early before he went undrafted.
Freeman may be the best of them all.
At this point, it can be easy to dismiss Oregon offensive numbers as a product of the system. The Ducks run a lot of plays, and regardless of who cycles through the offense, the team always racks up big-time stats. Oregon has not finished outside the top 11 in yards per play since 2009, and it has earned its reputation as a high-powered, productive and explosive offense.
Freeman is in no way a product of the system. He just happens to fit perfectly within it, even if he doesn't look or play like Oregon's recent star running backs. Freeman embodies just about every quality desired in a college running back, and at 230 pounds, he's much bigger than James, Thomas and Barner. It's a perfect match, despite the differences with his predecessors. Oregon spreads the field and pushes the tempo, and it's able to run the powerful Freeman downhill at spread-out defenses that are not prepared to take him on.
Even at that size, Freeman creates on his own, with patience, vision and surprisingly quick feet. He's capable of being a power back, but like Fournette, he's a nimble runner who can smoothly glide through defenses. He can stop and star quickly, with impressive change-of-direction skills.
Freeman doesn't have the open-field explosiveness of players like McCaffrey and Cook and former Oregon backs like Barner and James, but he does have burst and a second gear. He waits for blocks to develop, and when he gets a lane, he's so hard to bring down in the open field because of that combination of agility, strength and downhill speed, with a relentless style in which he always drives his legs for extra yards. It's no accident that he averaged 6.5 yards per carry as a sophomore.
What takes Freeman to another level, and adds to his NFL potential, is how he contributes to the passing game. He's a willing blocker, and he's also a smooth, natural receiver who averaged 13.4 yards per reception, acting as more than just a check-down outlet.
Given his well-rounded skill set, and given how productive he has already been in two seasons, Freeman needs to be included in any preseason Heisman talk. Of course, his fate partially depends on the rest of his team.
It's still hard to know what to expect from Oregon as a whole this season. Stanford won the Pac-12 last year, and Washington is lurking as a new challenger in the Pac-12 North. The Ducks have another open QB battle featuring a graduate transfer from the FCS level -- this time, Montana State's Dakota Prukop -- and they have rebuilding to do on the offensive line, plus a new play caller, Matt Lubick, after Scott Frost got the UCF head coaching job. Despite playing 11 of 12 games against Power Five opponents, every game on their schedule is winnable, but half the games feel like toss-ups.
Through all the certainty, the best news is that Oregon can lean heavily on one of the most reliable players in the country. In fact, "reliable" isn't strong enough. Freeman is one of the most reliably great players in the country, a powerful, hard-running presence at the center of an attack known best for its speed, both in terms of its skill players and its tempo.
Oregon's offense isn't at its best if it pushes the tempo all the time. The key is changing up the pace and keeping defenses off-balance. The same applies to the players. For all of the speed Oregon has in spreading the field, the combination of quickness and power running of Freeman can be so difficult to handle for defenses not accustomed to tackling bigger backs in space.
Oregon's offense has had some post-Mariota growing pains, but it is still capable of being must-see TV. Everyone will be watching Fournette this year, and everybody will be wondering what McCaffrey can do to follow up his remarkable 2015 Heisman campaign. But regardless of what happens to the Ducks in 2016, make time for Oregon's star tailback too. Conversations about the best players in college football can't happen without him.