EUGENE, Ore. — After the trials of last season, Oregon running back Royce Freeman appears to have emerged with two things: a college degree and a brighter outlook.
The senior, who opted to stay with the Ducks rather than enter the NFL draft this spring, heads into the season with 936 career rushing yards to go to reach LaMichael James' Oregon record of 5,082.
"I'm comfortable in my own skin. I'm a senior, I've been here before, I've seen it all, been to a national championship," he said. "I feel more than comfortable being around these guys and playing beside them — and that was a huge reason for me coming back."
Freeman completed a degree this summer in general social science with an emphasis on crime, law and society, something that was important in addition to "finishing on a better note than I did last year."
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Freeman was the Ducks' leading rusher last year with 945 yards in 11 games. He was widely considered a Heisman candidate going into the season, but he was held back by injury.
Oregon was struggling overall, too. The Ducks finished 4-8 overall and at the bottom of the Pac-12 North standings at 2-7 — snapping a run of nine straight winning seasons in conference play. Three days after the season ended with a loss to Oregon State in the Civil War game, the Ducks fired coach Mark Helfrich.
Oregon went on to hire charismatic coach Willie Taggart, who spent the previous four years turning around the program at South Florida. The Bulls flipped from a 2-10 record in his first year to a 10-2 mark last season and a spot in the Birmingham Bowl.
"Coach Taggart and his staff bring energy every day," Freeman said. "And they demand the same from us."
Taggart has been impressed with Freeman.
"He's excited. He's ready to go. I've seen a big difference in him and his attitude and the way he's doing things and the way he's working. Really excited about it, and glad that he decided to come back," Taggart said.
In his first two seasons, Freeman has epitomized the speed in Oregon's hyper-drive offense.
The native Californian burst on the scene as a freshman, rushing for 1,365 yards — a Pac-12 true freshman record — and 18 touchdowns. He also caught a touchdown pass. As a result, he was named the league's freshman of the year on offense.
He followed that up with 1,836 yards — an Oregon single-season record — and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore.
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Freeman currently has 44 rushing touchdowns for his career, trailing James' 53. But he insists he's not paying attention to the numbers, or closing in on James' lofty records.
"I don't really think of anything statistical," he said. "I mean, I feel like if I go out there and perform the best that I can and the best I am capable of, then everything else will come."
At 6 feet and a muscular 238 pounds, Freeman recently attracted attention with a video showing him squatting 600 pounds during a team lifting session.
He's also a preseason candidate for numerous awards, including the Doak Walker award for the nation's top running back. James won the honor as a sophomore at Oregon in 2010.
When asked how many carries he plans to give Freeman each game, Taggart laughed.
"As many as he wants," Taggart said with a smile. "I told him to tell me when he doesn't want any more carries. I'll just keep giving them to him."