Freeman finishes strong for Ducks
EUGENE — Four years ago, he came to Eugene from Imperial, California. He spoke little and talked quietly when he did speak. He had massive arms that bulged out of his compression Nike shirts. He immediately created an impression in summer workouts, making future Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota sing his praises.
The soft-spoken man-child, Royce Freeman, would become the greatest running back, statistically, in Oregon history.
On Saturday, Freeman played his final game at Autzen Stadium and perhaps for the last time in his college career.
Before that, though, Freeman walked out onto the Autzen Stadium gridiron for Senior Day and was greeted by his mother.
"Pregame, there was a lot of joy, a lot of emotion to see my mom out there to welcome me," Freeman said. "My mom just told me how much she was proud of me. I was reflecting on all the memories I had out here in Autzen."
Freeman's Duck career began with a magical true freshman season. He lined up in the same Oregon backfield as Mariota and was a star on a team that won the Rose Bowl and played in the national championship game.
In many ways, that season was the peak for Freeman — as well as for the Ducks. Over the next three years, Freeman would battle injuries, a losing season and a coaching change. His Oregon team would go just 11-14 over his last 25 games, beginning with the blowing of a 31-0 lead in the 2015 Alamo Bowl.
Perhaps Freeman had all the luck he was entitled to all during his freshman year. But even when things were not going his way, Freeman made his own luck, running hard, never making excuses and returning to Oregon for his senior season when many thought he was bound for the NFL.
"Royce is a really special player," Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert said. "I told him earlier today, 'I was a big fan of you before I came here and I'm an even bigger fan now.' He's a special guy off the field, too, a guy everybody rallies around. And I'm just super glad he's on our side of the ball."
Oregon's 69-10 Civil War blowout on Saturday against Oregon State was, in many ways, a celebration and a tribute to Freeman's greatness. While taking significant breaks throughout the contest, Freeman finished with 122 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
The tone was set in the first quarter, when Freeman helped establish Oregon as the far superior team. Freeman took 10 handoffs, gained 74 yards and scored a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Ducks a 10-0 lead with 6:50 remaining in the period.
At the end of the first half, Freeman had 115 yards on 16 carries and had gotten into the end zone twice.
"Royce played well," Ducks coach Willie Taggart said. "Royce played like he normally plays. Whenever he gets an opportunity to compete, he's going to go out and do it and give you everything he has. He played well, and the offensive line did a great job."
Freeman's second touchdown, a 13-yard run with 10:49 remaining in the first half, was the 60th of his career and moved him past Oregon State great Ken Simonton for the most all-time career rushing touchdowns in the Pac-12.
With a catch out of the backfield in the first quarter, Freeman also became only the fourth player in college football history to have 5,000 career rushing yards and 800 career yards receiving.
Freeman is the Ducks' record-holder in rushing (5,562 yards), all-purpose yards (6,435), rushing touchdowns (60), total touchdowns (64), points scored (384), 100-yard rushing games (31) and rushing attempts (941).
Freeman smiled when asked about what all of his record numbers mean to him.
"I think it means I'm kind of old now," he said. "After a while, it's kind of like, 'Man, I'm pretty old now.' It's a tribute to the offensive line. The ones I've had over the years, the ones that have blocked for me, the guys on the perimeter. It's not me, it's not a solo mission. It's not like I can do it by myself. I just give much thanks to those guys."
One of the most impactful linemen in Freeman's career is senior left tackle Tyrell Crosby. After the game, Crosby and Freeman were two of the last players to leave the field, walking together.
"Blocking for Royce was a blast," Crosby said.
Said Freeman: "We were out there playing as true freshmen together. He's been out there, blocking his butt off. If you ask me, he's one of, if not the best tackle in the country. He gives everything he has every Saturday for us. I've seen him do that for four years, and I'm just really appreciative to have him as a teammate."
The Ducks (7-5) are bowl-bound, but it will not be a particularly prestigious bowl. Freeman could stay with the team, participate in the Ducks' practices and take handoffs in the bowl game. He also could save his body and begin preparing for the NFL draft, as many college running backs have done over the past several years.
Taggart said he and Freeman have not yet discussed whether the running back will play in Oregon's bowl game.
"I don't know how that process works," Taggart said. "We haven't talked about that at all. That will be up to Royce. If he decides to play in it, we're all going to love that. If he decides not to, then we'll deal with that, too."
Freeman said he has not made a decision.
"I haven't really gotten a chance to think about that yet," he said. "(I will be) reflecting after this game. I'll watch the film and just rely on people close to me and make a decision. But I haven't thought that far yet."
Whether Saturday was Freeman's swan song or he has one more game as a Duck, he will long be remembered as perhaps the greatest running back to ever line up in the backfield at Oregon.
"Right now," Freeman said, "it's more joy that we beat the Beavers."