Freeman playing through pain
Before Justin Herbert left Oregon’s victory over California on Sept. 30 with a broken collarbone, Royce Freeman was the biggest injury concern for the Ducks on that day.
The senior running back hurt his shoulder in the first quarter of Oregon’s 45-24 victory over the Bears just a few minutes before Herbert went to the locker room. Freeman did not return to the game, but coach Willie Taggart said he could have gone back in if necessary, and he was back in uniform the following week against Washington State.
As Freeman has run for at least 122 yards in each of the past five games, his shoulder injury has been mostly forgotten by everyone outside the Oregon locker room.
“He’s not 100 percent, but he’s playing through the pain all for the love of the University of Oregon and what the school has done for him,” Oregon coach Willie Taggart said after Freeman scored four times to set the school record with 62 career touchdowns in Saturday’s 48-28 win over Arizona.
Freeman missed one game during his junior season following a leg injury suffered at Nebraska but later played through an injured sternum.
“It’s just a part of football, playing through it is something I’ve had to do,” he said Tuesday.
While Freeman’s performance suffered through the injuries last year, he’s replicating his freshman and sophomore seasons, when he earned All-American honors. In 11 games, he ranks third in the Pac-12 with 1,353 rushing yards, just 12 fewer than he had in 15 games as a freshman.
In the past five weeks, Freeman has averaged 139.8 yards per game on the ground.
“That’s what big-time players do,” Oregon co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal said. “Everyone is hurt, banged up and it’s time to step up this time of year. The weather isn’t nice and conditions are difficult, and he’s done exactly what we need him to do.”
While Oregon completed fewer than 10 passes during the final four games with Herbert out injured, Freeman carried the ball 91 times with an average of 6.2 yards per carry as defenses aligned to stop Oregon’s running game.
“Royce is a monster,” Oregon tight end Jacob Breeland said after Freeman ran 24 times for 122 yards in a 38-3 loss at Washington on Nov. 4. “He’s doing everything he can with a hurt shoulder and he keeps killing it.”
Taggart altered Freeman’s practice schedule to make sure he was able to play in each game.
“We slowed some things down for him throughout the season,” Taggart said. “He gets a lot of mental reps on Tuesdays and then goes out Wednesday and gets some reps so he can get himself some rhythm for what we are doing, so we did that for pretty much the latter part of the season and I think it helped him big-time. He hasn’t been 100 percent, but he’s been going and I think taking some of the load off him helped him.”
Freeman said studying the game has always been part of his routine.
“It’s important to take mental reps regardless,” Freeman said. “The coaches do me a favor by adjusting sometimes, taking the physical part out of it from time to time, but I always stay locked in.”
Freeman will play his 26th and final game at Autzen Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday against Oregon State.
“It’s going to be a special one,” he said. “I have been here for quite a while and the fans have been nothing but supportive. It’s a rivalry game, so it should be fun.”
Oregon became bowl eligible with the victory over Arizona and might be headed to the Cactus Bowl on Dec. 26.
The Ducks’ top two NFL prospects had similar answers when asked Tuesday if they would consider skipping a bowl game to begin preparing for a pro career like LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey did last year.
“I haven’t thought about that yet,” Oregon tackle Tyrell Crosby said.
Freeman said he wouldn’t look ahead to a bowl game until after the regular season.
“I’m definitely focused on this week, this is a big one,” he said. “I haven’t thought anything about that.”
Rested and ready
Kani Benoit will be one of the seniors honored before the Civil War and is expected to be back in action against the Beavers.
Benoit injured his ankle against Washington and didn’t play against Arizona, but was going through drills with running backs during practice Tuesday.
“He will be ready for (Oregon State) for sure,” Taggart said after the win over the Wildcats. “We didn’t feel the need to put him out there when he’s not 100 percent.”