A program doesn’t have a run like that of Oregon football in the last half decade — three conference championships, two national title game appearances and 60 wins — without knowing how to replace top-tier players. The Ducks have cycled through Heisman Trophy candidates and a Heisman winner in that time, and in 2015, running back Royce Freeman is the next star up.
Royce Freeman performed up to his blue-chip accolades in his debut season at Oregon, rushing for 1,365 yards and an impressive 18 touchdowns. He’ll presumably have a more substantial workload in his sophomore campaign, but will that be enough to sustain the Ducks’ while Jeff Lockie, Travis Jonsen or Vernon Adams — none of whom have started at the FBS level — try to replicate Marcus Mariota’s presence?
Not necessarily. Shouldering the offensive burden Mariota leaves behind after three outstanding seasons as Oregon’s starting quarterback is a group job. Royce Freeman might take on the bulk while the new quarterback gets up to speed, but sharing carries with junior Thomas Tyner takes much of the weight off Freeman’s massive shoulders.
The Oregon quarterback competition is sure to spark the most conversation emanating from the Ducks’ offseason. Things get especially interesting when Adams, the former Eastern Washington star and proven Beaver-slayer, arrives in the summer. Adams has to play catch-up learning the Oregon playbook, and he might be rusty after a spring spent without the benefit of a college football practice facility.
However, the Royce Freeman-Thomas Tyner dynamic is just as intriguing, if not more so. Tyner came to Oregon in 2013, a 5-star recruit out of Aloha High School in nearby Beaverton, and quickly stole some of upperclassman Byron Marshall’s thunder.
A year ago around this time, in the Ducks spring game, Tyner looked every bit like the program’s next breakout star ball-carrier.
Before Tyner could emerge as the next great Oregon ball-carrier in the tradition of Reuben Droughns, Jonathan Stewart, LaGarrette Blout, Lamichael James and Kenjon Barner, Royce Freeman bypassed him.
It certainly didn’t help Tyner’s case to become No. 1 back that the sophomore missed the last three games of the regular season, battling both ankle and shoulder injuries. Still, his heftiest loads before then were 13-carry outings against Michigan State and UCLA. He averaged just 2.5 and 4.5 yards per carry in those contests.
But Thomas Tyner showed exactly why he was one of the nation’s most coveted prospects in 2013 on the first day of 2015. His 124-yard, two-touchdown performance in Oregon’s Rose Bowl romp over defending national champion Florida State was a fitting culmination for Tyner, bouncing back from injury.
“A healthy Thomas helps everybody out,” head coach Mark Helfrich said in the postgame press conference, via ASAPSports.com. Helfrich’s assessment is perhaps foreshadowing of the Oregon season to come. “It helps Marcus. It helps Royce.”
And this season, Tyner’s presence will help the new quarterback. Expect a look from Tyner and Freeman similar to the 2011 campaign. That season, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas was injured midway through, and even when 100 percent, was hardly the caliber of playmaker his successor, Mariota, was.
Then-head coach Chip Kelly and then-offensive coordinator Helfrich focused the offense around the two-headed backfield of Lamichael James and Kenjon Barner. James finished 2011 with some stats that were frankly, more impressive than those he accumulated as a Heisman finalist the year prior. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry for 1,870 total.
Barner rushed 152 yards and finished a few first downs shy of 1,000 yards. Though Barner did some of his work while James nursed a midseason injury, Barner’s presence when both were in the lineup kept defenses back on their heels. Having a second, equally dangerous ball-carrier tag-teaming with him made James all the more effective.
Royce Freeman looks like the Lamichael James of this year’s tandem — not physically, of course. At 230 pounds, Freeman is built more like one of the Ducks linebackers, and that bulky frame means he can withstand physicality for the duration of the season.
But he won’t have to endure too much with Thomas Tyner coming on for his share of the action.
Once the Ducks have their new quarterback settled in, watch out. Oregon should transition into its post-Mariota era just as seamlessly as it worked into the Heisman quarterback’s career.