BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Running back's return strengthens Oregon Ducks' attack plans

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Royce Freeman (right) takes a handoff from Justin Herbert during the spring game at Autzen Stadium.
EUGENE — On the day before he announced he would return for one more season with the Ducks, running back Royce Freeman was still weighing his options.

Tony Brooks-James remembers "like it was yesterday" getting a text message from Freeman asking for input.

Brooks-James' response?

"If you leave, I support it. If you stay, we're just going to run the Pac-12. It's as simple as that."

The decision to put off the NFL and play one more season at Oregon was not simple for Freeman. But his announcement on Dec. 21 that he would return for his final season was simply wonderful news for new coach Willie Taggart.

Despite battling injuries in 2016, Freeman finished his junior season with 945 rushing yards. He enters 2017 second in program history in career rushing yards at 4,146, 936 shy of LaMichael James' record 5,082.

If chasing that record factored into Freeman's decision to return, he has not mentioned it.

"I don't really think about anything statistical," he says. "I feel like if I go out there and perform the best that I can, the best that I am capable of, then everything else will come."

Freeman does mention his sociology degree in crime, law and society — which he completed this summer — as a meaningful reason he stayed in Eugene. So is a "personal vendetta" about the way last season unfolded as the Ducks went 4-8.

"I feel like I've just got to be comfortable in my own skin. I'm a senior. I've been here before. I've seen it all, been to the national championship, etcetera," he says. "I just had to figure out if I would be happy enough to come back and be in this environment that Coach Taggart (brought). I feel more than comfortable being around these guys and playing beside them, and that was a huge reason for coming back."

Brooks-James has learned from Freeman over the years about things such as reading defenses and pass protections and is looking forward to another season of insight from his running mate.

"We speak a lot and do a lot of things together where I can pick his brain about things," Brooks-James says. "I come up with a scenario and ask, 'How would you handle this scenario?'"

A scenario that might give defensive coordinators pause: Even with a banged-up Freeman, the Ducks' per-game rushing average (226.4 yards) was second in the Pac-12 in 2016. That ended a string of 10 consecutive seasons tin which Oregon led the conference in rushing.

Part of Taggart's plan to restore Oregon to the top is to emphasize strength in the conditioning program. Freeman, it seems, was a leader this summer in that push.

"When you look at a guy like Royce Freeman, who was already big and looked good, you would think there's not much more you can do with his body," Taggart says. "But you look at before and after pictures of him (and) you're really impressed with the work our guys have done this offseason."

Freeman is motivated by the painful memories from 2016. Injury prevention was front and center in his mind as he pushed his weight training this summer. On July 19, Freeman posted on Twitter a video of him completing a 600-pound squat.

"I think Coach 'O' (head strength coach Irele Oderinde) and the strength staff focused on different things. … making sure I have enough strength for a whole season," Freeman says. "Football is a grueling game, and running back is no exception. I think they've done a great job of helping me strengthen myself to lean toward durability for this season."

Freeman is looking forward to running behind an offensive line that should be deeper and more together than a season ago. He is excited to see how Taggart uses a stable of runners that includes Freeman, juniors Brooks-James and Taj Griffin and senior Kani Benoit.

"I think with a new coaching staff, these guys are getting fresh eyes on what everybody can do. We've been working on different things during the offseason, trying to add different things to our arsenal," Freeman says. "So, same as you, I think it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff utilizes the different running backs, … because we have second-to-none (talent) in our backfield."

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