EUGENE, Ore. -- It can be tricky to make too many assumptions during fall camp, especially when all the practices happen behind closed doors.
One coach’s thoughts might be to ramp up the attention for a less-prominent guy, someone who has shown flashes but likely won’t get consistent playing time during the season. With the media unable to see anything, it has to go off the coach’s word, so why not give some pub to a guy who won’t get it later?
And other coaches might downplay a younger, less-experienced player. Why put the limelight on him before he even takes one significant snap as a college player? Could that harm his overall development if he gets too big of a head?
But if depth charts are to be believed, then Oregon running back Royce Freeman is in neither of those categories. All fall the freshman was talked up by players and coaches, and on Monday, the Ducks’ depth chart backed that up. He’s listed in a three-way battle for the top running back position for the Ducks, alongside sophomore Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.
“We don’t plan on redshirting anybody -- every guy we bring in here we’re preparing to be a starter,” Oregon running back coach Gary Campbell said. “And he came in with that attitude.”
Marshall rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Tyner was right there, improving consistently through the season and finishing with 711 yards.
And Freeman? Well, he rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns … but it was against high school competition.
Try searching for Freeman on Google. The first handful of links go to recruiting profiles. The images that pop up of Freeman are him in his red and white Imperial High School (Calif.) Tigers uniform.
Even in the past when the Ducks have had abundant talent in the backfield, they’ve listed it out as a first, second and third string. In 2011, on Oregon’s fall camp depth chart, La’Michael James was listed as the top back, Kenjon Barner was next and De’Anthony Thomas came in third.
And that’s exactly how the season played out. James led the way with 1,805 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Barner finished second with 939 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, and Thomas concluded the season with 595 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Last year, Thomas was listed as the first-string back, Marshall was listed as second and Tyner was third. It played out that way as well.
Now, just five days from the Ducks’ season opener against South Dakota, the Ducks have a freshman, sophomore and junior all on an even playing field. The word “or” is acting as the public equalizer of all three.
The one starting Saturday will be the one who’s practicing best and from there on out, game production will weigh more heavily. Campbell said the players can tell who’s making progress and who’s not, so presumably the practices this week are going to be heated for the backs.
He said all three players are pretty similar but that Marshall has the advantage of experience, Tyner has the advantage of speed and Freeman has the advantage of strength.
Put all three of those together and the Ducks would have the best singular running back in the nation by far. Instead, they have a three-headed monster.
Is that a good problem to have?
“It’s a great one,” Campbell said.
The depth chart has backed up the fall talk. Now, it’s the waiting game until Saturday to see if the on-field play backs up the depth chart, and if this freshman -- who has been the talk of the town -- is as good as we’ve heard and seen (on paper).
“We never are sure what we’re going to get with our freshmen until they get here,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “You can look great in high school but if you don’t come in mature it just takes longer for you to pick it up. … You never know what you’re going to get with freshmen, but you can tell the guys who can do it almost from day one because they come in in-shape with the right attitude and they start learning right away.”
Could Freeman be that guy? Saturday will reveal at least some of the answer.