Like most people in Imperial, California, varsity football coach Kerry Legarra heard stories about a uniquely talented youngster named Royce Freeman before having even set eyes on him.

He heard people around town describe Freeman as a man-child or a physical specimen. He heard the stories about the shortstop who would get to a baseball in right field before any other players and still get the out at first. He heard about the eighth-grader who could dunk a basketball.

But in Imperial, a city of just around 15,000 residents, it always seemed as though people were looking for something to talk about. Maybe this kid was just getting his 15 minutes of fame a little early.

Then came the day when Legarra was sitting in the stands at a high school girl’s basketball tournament and a player began shooting baskets at halftime.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Courtesy Freeman familyOregon freshman RB Royce Freeman's athletic talent was evident at an early age.
“Some of the people up in the stands asked me, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I said, ‘I suppose he goes to school at the junior college out here,’” Legarra said. “They said, ‘No, that’s Freeman.’”

That was Freeman, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound 13-year-old.

“He was that mature at that age,” Legarra said. “Just looking at him, his physical features, I couldn’t believe that was him. I honest to God thought it was one of the players for our junior college that we have here in Imperial Valley.”

But it wasn’t just in eighth grade that Freeman looked like an athlete beyond his years.

“He was just born that way,” his mom, Sheila, said.

He was 8 pounds, 1 ounce at birth, but he grew quickly.

His parents never really put him in zero-to-three-month-old baby clothes. They nicknamed him “Tank” even before he could walk, which was, of course, earlier than most other babies. He required a bottle every hour and a half for the first months and that didn’t stop until they began crushing up cereal to put in with the milk (their doctor said this might upset Royce’s stomach. Of course, it didn’t).

He kept growing and naturally leaned toward sports. Tee ball was his first, but Pop Warner football wasn’t far behind.

By elementary school he struggled to make the weight restrictions for his teams -- he was too heavy to play with the kids his own age -- so he had to play up an age group or two.

By fifth grade, Freeman’s parents decided they didn’t want to restrict Royce’s eating habits nor did they want to put him with kids so much older in football, so he stopped playing.

“We just made a decision that he would wait,” Sheila said. “And then he could continue playing if he wished to continue playing.”

He focused on baseball for the next few years, but Sheila saw how the sport didn’t really hold his attention. When high school football tryouts rolled around, Royce decided he would go out for the team, despite his five-year hiatus from the sport.

He made the junior varsity team. But Legarra and Imperial had to get permission from the state to allow Royce, who wouldn’t turn 15 until February, to play on the varsity team as the California Interscholastic Federation didn’t allow 14-year-olds to play varsity football.

Freeman had been moved up by the time league play rolled around. And though Legarra doesn’t remember Freeman’s first varsity carry, his second -- a 63-yard touchdown run -- sticks out.

“And then the story was written,” Legarra said.

It was then that Legarra realized that maybe the hype was actually not big enough for a kid who’d end up putting Imperial on the map.

Freeman rushed for 111 touchdowns and 7,601 yards in high school. He had a strategy with coaches and his parents as to how to sneak out of the football stadium after games.

By his junior year, people would park their cars outside of the stadium at 6 a.m. on a Friday to make sure they could have the best tailgating spots for Royce’s games at 7 p.m.

“It was unbelievable,” Legarra said. “It was like he was a movie star or something.”

When Freeman left for Eugene this summer, Legarra told his son, “Within four games he’ll be the starting running back there.”

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
AP Photo/Ryan KangFreeman has rushed for 290 yards and six touchdowns in his last two games.
Legarra was only one game off. By the Ducks’ fifth game, Freeman was announced as the starting running back.

He’s only 18 years old, but leads the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth nationally) and is sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (90.9).

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that Freeman is making his mark as a true freshman. He never really has played against guys his own age so stepping into the starting role at Oregon isn’t that much of a departure.

“The way my body turned out,” Freeman said. “I learned how to use it.”

And now, opposing coaches in the Pac-12 are trying to figure out how to defend a body that turned out like that. So far, no one has had much success. Against conference opponents, Freeman has rushed for 450 yards and six touchdowns and more than 40 percent of his yards (188) have come after contact.

“He’s a big, powerful running back,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, whose Bears will face Freeman on Friday. “He’s a load to tackle and he moves around pretty good for a guy that’s got his size.”

“He’s big and he’s fast,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, the last coach to scheme against Freeman. “He certainly doesn’t play like a freshman.”

No, he doesn’t.

But he didn’t eat like a baby when he was a baby, he didn’t grow like an infant when he was an infant, and he didn’t carry the ball in high school like a high schooler.

So why at Oregon would he play like a freshman when he’s a freshman?

He's used to exceeding his own hype.

Pac-12 Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
9:00
AM ET
Why Washington State will win: Washington State has been so, so close in so many games. The Cougars' record doesn't really speak to what kind of a team they are, and if the defensive line can get some pressure on Anu Solomon and limit Nick Wilson, then I think Connor Halliday is going to be able to put up enough yards to have the Cougars come away with this win. Halliday has been so sharp recently. In the last four games he has completed 173 of 263 passes (66 percent) and thrown for 1,879 yards, 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. That's 7.1 yards per attempt for Halliday. He's going to be able to get one of these wins if he does enough and the ball bounces their way just one or two times more. My bet is that day comes Saturday. -- Chantel Jennings

Why Arizona will win: Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez know how to engineer an efficient offense, so I think this game will be a close shootout. That’s why Arizona has the edge here. Aside from one missed field goal attempt to end their game against USC, the Wildcats have been absolute nails in the fourth quarter, while the Cougars have been the exact opposite. Since Washington State is desperate, this game will come down to its final few possessions, but Solomon is developing a reputation as a quarterback who comes through in those spots. -- David Lombardi

Why Washington will win: After losing their eleventh straight to the Ducks, the Huskies are certainly thrilled to be playing anyone but Oregon this weekend. Chris Petersen’s squad preys on turnovers; they can get back to forcing them in the electricity of their home environment. And although Washington’s offense ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12, I’m not yet sold on ASU’s defense. We need to see more than one solid performance against a struggling Stanford offense to believe the Sun Devils have turned the corner. Washington will move the ball enough to win. -- David Lombardi

Why Arizona State will win: Arizona State is going to go with the Oregon blueprint to beat the Huskies. Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici is going to be accurate and efficient in the air, and D.J. Foster is going to get work done on the ground. Defensively, the Sun Devils will frustrate Cyler Miles and force him into a turnover or two. Another road win is coming for ASU, and with it, look for the Sun Devils to sneak into the top 15 come Sunday. -- Chantel Jennings

Unanimous Pac-12 picks

Why Oregon wins: While I think Cal has the offense and receivers to tax the Oregon secondary a bit, the defense isn’t there (especially sans Brennan Scarlett) to slow the Ducks down. Oregon is getting healthier, while Cal is starting to lose some key players. Really like the improvement we’ve seen from the Bears. But I don’t see them at Oregon’s level yet. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Utah wins: At some point, home field has to count for something, right? Rice-Eccles is a hostile environment and the MUSS will be out in force. If the Utes can get even marginal quarterback play -- enough to give Devontae Booker more six-man boxes than seven -- then they’ll have the offense and defense to control the tempo and dictate the game. -- Kevin Gemmell

Why Stanford wins: This is going to be a low-scoring affair, but expect Oregon State's score to be lower than Stanford's, because the Cardinal defense is going to be swarming. With three losses already, the Cardinal are going to want to show the conference what's up and that even though they might not be perfect, they're still competitive and know how to win games. They'll get the job done at home. -- Chantel Jennings

Why UCLA wins: UCLA turnovers are the only way this game stays remotely close. The Bruins just have too much explosive firepower on both sides of the ball, so this will be a struggle for the Buffs. Of course, UCLA kept Cal in the game with three costly turnovers last week. But they still won because of Brett Hundley’s explosiveness, and that’ll again be a nice safety cushion in Boulder. -- David Lombardi

Pac-12 morning links

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
8:00
AM ET
Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home.

Leading off

If you believe what Todd Graham has been saying all along -- that Taylor Kelly is his starting quarterback once he's back to 100 percent -- then you can expect to see Kelly at the helm for the No. 14 Sun Devils when they travel to Washington this weekend.

Speaking with the media on Wednesday after practice, Kelly said he feels 100 percent and is ready to go.

Here's an excerpt from Zach Buchanan's piece in The Arizona Republic:
Kelly insists he's capable of making all the movements required of playing quarterback, which in ASU's system also means a lot of running the ball on read options. If he's worried about anything, it's a bit of mental rust.

Kelly has been throwing in some capacity for a few weeks, but nothing prepares you for game action.

"The main thing I was worried about was my eyes, trusting my eyes and the game speed and stuff," Kelly said. "It's been a really great experience this week, and things are going to work great."

During Kelly's absence, Mike Bercovici led the Sun Devils to a 2-1 record with wins over USC and Stanford.

The flip side

ASU's opponent, may or may not have its starter back for Saturday's matchup. Cyler Miles is still day-to-day after suffering a concussion in the loss last week to Oregon. Redshirt freshman Troy Williams has been taking first-team reps. Here's what Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith told reporters after practice Wednesday:
I think he’s understanding and throwing the ball really accurately. That was the slight edge we thought Jeff (Lindquist)brought in the first game. And then we were really pleased at how Troy created some offense with his arm (against Oregon). He really has some arm talent, and that showed in the last month.

Williams was 5-of 10-for 37 yards against the Ducks. He rushed five times for 28 yards and a touchdown.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

Andre Yruretagoyena talks about getting his ears pierced, running without pants and his kitten. Seriously.

You just knew it was going to make an appearance ...

video

Trevor Matich and Todd McShay look at which conference will be on the outside looking in when trying to put teams into the College Football Playoff.
videoSo maybe all the hubbub and Apocalyptic thoughts that came crashing down on Eugene and all of Interstate 5 and up through the Cascades a few weeks ago were a little bit of an overreaction, no?

But oh, how quickly the tide changes. Because in just two weeks, Marcus Mariota has led the Oregon Ducks from pandemonium to the Promised Land (with some help from a few other top teams being upset) and back into the good graces of the football gods. Not bad, Marcus, not bad -- just 16 days to go from a hopeless team to a heroic one.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota has helped Oregon stay in contention for the College Football Playoff by completing 70 percent of his passes.
“Ah, but [insert SEC West QB name here] could do it in 15,” someone argues. But, that’s fine. Because the SEC can do what the SEC wants to do.

At this point, the Ducks just need to insulate and take care of business because they’re likely in control of their own destiny. According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Oregon has a 21 percent shot to win out. That's third-best among one-loss teams, behind Ohio State and TCU, which both have a 26 percent chance.

And with one game to go until the College Football Playoff committee releases its first set of rankings, Oregon solidified itself as the Pac-12’s banner holder.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t major issues that could still be exploited, and coach Mark Helfrich is the first to admit that.

“There’s a ton we can improve upon, for sure,” he said on Sunday night after watching his team’s game film from its dominant win over Washington.

Such as ... tackling. That has looked better these past two weeks, but the Ducks are still giving up far too many big plays. Oregon has given up 119 plays of 10 or more yards so far this season. You want to know who else has given up that many plays of 10 or more yards?

Purdue and Toledo. In very few cases in college football -- when it comes to statistics -- do you want to be on the same list as those two teams.

As the weeks progress, the Ducks are doing a better job communicating and getting helmets to the ball. But still, of the 1,182 rushing yards the Ducks have allowed, 610 have come after contact.

So, you can decide whether it’s more worrisome that more than half of opponents’ rushing yardage has come after Oregon (tries to) tackle or the fact that through seven games, 572 rushing yards have come before an Oregon defensive player has even gotten to the ball. Or, everyone can just agree that it’s bad news when the Oregon defense allows other teams a 4.3-yards-per-rush average and a 65 percent conversion rate on third-down rushing attempts.

But, it can get better (well, at 120th in the country in third-down rushing defense, it can’t get much worse).

Defensive coordinator Don Pellum has been on this staff a long time, and he knows that this group can play much better than it has. Defenses always take longer to jell and with so many new faces on that side of the ball and D-lineman Arik Armstead hopefully healthy for good, maybe the learning curve will kick up a notch.

But the offense finally seems to be clicking. And though Helfrich wants to downplay the return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher, the skies have looked dramatically clearer for the Ducks since Fisher got back to bookending the left side of the line and protecting Mariota’s blindside.

In Oregon's games against Arizona and Washington State, with Fisher out, the Ducks' average rushing yardage was just about even with what those two teams had given up coming into those games. Meaning, it was average. An average team will not reach the playoff.

But when Fisher returned, the Ducks averaged 1½ times the rushing averages that UCLA and Washington had given up coming into those games. That’s the kind of performance the committee wants to see. It’s not all about statistics, but when Royce Freeman is rushing for 100 yards and Mariota is completing 70 percent of his passes, they’re a hard team to ignore.

And that’s exactly what the Ducks need to be: Hard to ignore -- and not just because their uniforms are flashy.

So, why not Oregon? That’s the question the committee will ask itself as it sits down to look at the résumés of the top 20 or so teams.

It’s a team that knows how to be nationally relevant, but it’s also a team that knows what it feels like to slip out of that conversation.

Two weeks ago, it seemed like that might happen. But the loss to Arizona doesn’t carry as much weight now, as there’s a certainty that at least two one-loss teams will be in the playoff.

Oregon is in the conversation. The Ducks are the ones who are going to decide whether they keep themselves there or not.

Drawing Conclusions: Week 8

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:38
PM ET


video

A look at the aftermath in the wake of all of the week 8 college football action.
video

Brad Edwards and Adam Rittenberg look at whether or not the Big 12 has surpassed the Pac-12 as the second best conference in college football.
video
Several Pac-12 commitments and prospects saw some significant movement in the updated ESPN 300 rankings released Wednesday. Overall, the conference holds commitments from two of the top 22 prospects in the country and 26 of the top 300. With fewer than four months until signing day, let's take a look at where the Pac-12 stands in the ESPN 300.

Top trap games remaining for contenders 

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
10:15
AM ET
Oregon didn't see Arizona coming. Baylor was blindsided by West Virginia. Now those teams' playoff hopes are damaged, if not totaled.

It's often the surprising losses -- the trap games -- that derail promising seasons. Just ask Oklahoma State (Iowa State) in 2011 or USC (Oregon State) in 2008.

As for 2014, here are the most perilous traps remaining down the stretch for the top six in the AP poll. That includes Mississippi State, FSU and Ole Miss, the three remaining undefeated Power 5 teams.

1. Ole Miss
Trap game: at Arkansas (Nov. 22)
When they go to Fayetteville, the Rebels will essentially be coming off two open dates (they play Presbyterian on Nov. 8). But Arkansas still presents a classic look-ahead scenario, because Ole Miss has the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State the following week. The "biggest Egg Bowl ever" chatter is buzzing now; just imagine what it will be like a week before the game. If the Rebels' focus is waning, Arkansas is good enough to punish them for it. Mark it down: The Razorbacks are going to end their 16-game SEC losing streak this season, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened in an impactful game. Mississippi State (Nov. 1) also should be on high alert. Arkansas will slow down the game. Even if Ole Miss isn't running as much up-tempo this season, pace is still something the Rebs want to dictate. The timing and matchup are as dangerous as it gets.


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Pac-12 morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
8:00
AM ET
4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

Leading off

It's depth chart Wednesday! All 12 teams are in action this week -- no byes. Actually, it will be like this for the next two weeks. So that's exciting! Here are the most current depth charts for all the teams in action this week, save UCLA, which doesn't post a weekly depth chart. As always, I'll note any significant changes below. Notes
Heisman updates

Usually in this space every Wednesday, we've been linking the straw poll from Heismanpundit.com. However Chris Huston, friend of the blog who runs that site, has put it on hold while he does some work for the official Heisman site. We wish him the best.

So today we'll update you with the ESPN.com Heisman poll. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota still sits behind Mississippi State's Dak Prescott. But he closed the gap last week with his performance against Washington.

Here's how the latest poll shakes out, followed by their total points:
  1. Dak Prescott (47)
  2. Marcus Mariota (42)
  3. Melvin Gordon (25)
  4. Tie: Amari Cooper (9)
    Jameis Winston (9)

Prescott and Mariota were the only players receiving first-place votes. Looks like it's a two-man race to the finish.

News/notes/team reports
Just for fun

A cool behind-the-scenes photo journal of UCLA's trip to Cal.

Bravo, Oregon fans. Bravo.



The Trojans will rock these shiny new lids on Saturday.

video Adam McLean picked Penn State in April, but Ole Miss, Tennessee and others haven't stopped recruiting him, and his high school coach knows exactly why. DeMatha Catholic's 2016 class is shaping up to be one of the best ever in school history, and that's saying a lot.


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Pac-12 by the numbers: Week 9

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
6:30
PM ET
Here's another look at random stats pertaining to the Pac-12.

Friday

No. 6 Oregon vs. California at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California
  • Oregon has scored 79 points off turnovers, most in the conference.
  • Oregon has gained 61.9 percent of the possible yards on offense, most in the conference.
  • Cal leads the nation in touchdowns in conference games (26).
  • Oregon true freshman RB Royce Freeman has scored 12 touchdowns, most in the conference.
  • Cal QB Jared Goff ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 with an 80.8 QBR, which ranks No. 6 nationally.
Saturday

No. 25 UCLA at Colorado

  • Colorado is second in the Pac-12 averaging 49.3 pass attempts per game, but allows a conference-low 1.71 sacks per game.
  • The Bruins have had 13 drives of 80 yards or more, the most in the Pac-12.
  • UCLA picks up at least one first down on 82.4 percent of its drive, second-most in the Pac-12 behind Arizona.
  • Colorado has gone for it on fourth down 22 times, the most in the Pac-12.
  • In goal-to-go situations, both UCLA and Colorado have both scored touchdowns on 11 of 13 attempts with two made field goals.
Oregon State at Stanford

  • Stanford is tops in the conference in yard margin per game in Pac-12 play, averaging 113 more yards than its opponents.
  • Stanford has committed four turnovers in the red zone-- six teams in the conference have committed none.
  • Oregon State averages the most seconds of possession per play in the conference (28.3), but is followed closely by Stanford (28.0).
  • Oregon State scores on 37.2 percent of its drives, while Stanford is at 31.4 -- two of the three lowest rates in the Pac-12.
  • Stanford did not lose to Oregon State during its school-record 72-week streak in the AP Top 25 that was snapped this week. The Cardinal's last loss to Oregon State came in 2009, when it was unranked.
No. 15 Arizona at Washington State

  • Opposing defenses have committed 17 penalties against Arizona, the most against any Pac-12 team.
  • Arizona averages the fewest seconds of possession per play in the Pac-12 (20.1).
  • Arizona RB Nick Wilson owns the Pac-12's longest rush of the season -- an 85-yard touchdown run against UTSA. Only two other players have a carry longer than 57 yards yards.
  • Three WSU receivers – Vince Mayle, River Cracraft and Dom Williams – have a reception of 84 yards or longer. Of the rest of the conference, only Arizona (Cayleb Jones and Austin Hill) has more than one.
  • WSU punts on just 29.5 percent of its drives, the third-lowest percentage in the Pac-12.
No. 20 USC at No. 19 Utah
  • Utah averages 4.83 drives per game without a first down, the most in the Pac-12. USC averages 3.86, the second most.
  • Utah RB Devontae Booker averages 187.7 yards rushing in conference games, the second most among Power 5 running backs behind Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (217) ... and USC's Buck Allen is far behind. He ranks No. 6 (149).
  • USC QB Cody Kessler is among the most accurate quarterbacks in the country. His completion percentage (69.5) ranks No. 5 and his interception percentage (0.4) is No. 3.
  • Utah (5.18) and USC (5.36) rank No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in yards per play allowed in Pac-12 play.
No. 14 Arizona State at Washington
  • Washington has turned the ball over on just 3.4 percent of its possessions, the lowest rate in the Pac-12.
  • Arizona State is one of five teams in the country averaging over 320 yards passing and over 190 yards rushing on offense.
  • Arizona State’s defense has committed 11 penalties that resulted in first downs, second fewest in the country.
  • ASU averages 6.74 yards per play, which ranks second in the Pac-12 and 15th nationally.
  • Washington averages 181.4 passing yards per game, the fewest in the Pac-12.
Past weeks

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Week 5
Week 6
Week 7
Week 8

Pac-12 Weekend Wrap: Oct. 21

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:47
PM ET


video

Recruiting reporter Erik McKinney breaks down the top weekend storylines from the Pac-12.

Playoff Field: Week 9

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:27
PM ET


video

Cary Chow, Heather Dinich, and Adam Rittenberg take a look at where things stand after week 8 of the college football season, and what the playoff selection committee will have to do when sorting out all of the one-loss teams.

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College Football Live Extra: Left Out
Trevor Matich and Todd McShay look at which conference will be on the outside looking in when trying to put teams into the College Football Playoff.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Friday, 10/24
Saturday, 10/25