Gary Campbell is a wise, gifted coach, at the center of a competition between three running backs vying to become the focal point of the Oregon running attack in 2014.
Marcus Mariota will certainly be the leader and distributor, the savior of Oregon fans’ hopes for a conference and national title, but his principal sidekick is vitally important. The running game and the zone-read play is the heart of what Oregon does. It has to be a weapon that opponents fear, or the rest of the scheme loses its grip on opponent’s throats.
Campbell has to decide between three distinct candidates, each with their own style and strengths. Although all three will make a valuable contribution, one has to be the dominant male in the unit.
The coach has had notable success with tandems in the past, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson, Johnson and Jonathan Stewart, Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith, but this is his most significant foray into a three-headed monster.
The touches will have to be distributed, and one guy will have to earn the bulk of them, staying healthy and productive enough to keep his job at the top of the hierarchy.
Last year the Ducks were first in the conference and 9th in the country running the football at 273.5 yards a game, but the raw number is deceptive. As Chantel Jennings pointed out in an excellent article at espn.com this week, the offense only converted on 52.3% of its third down runs, 60% on 4th down. Statistically, they were an average team running in clutch situations, and their productivity suffered similarly at the goal line.
Thomas Tyner has the speed and ability to be a Hall of Fame running back in the NFL. At 5-11, 211 lbs. he possesses a combination of power and speed that made him a 5-star prospect and an All-American coming out of high school. What hasn’t been demonstrated yet is whether he has the will, toughness and determination to maximize all that talent. He had a very good freshman season with 711 yards, the all-time record for a true freshman at UO, 6.2 yards a carry, but with his ability, he ought to measure himself against Adrian Peterson and Bo Jackson, not Derek Loville.
One thing to watch with Tyner is whether he does the work to transform his body. Over their college careers, James and Barner chiseled themselves from fast little running backs to carved superstars, with thick cords of muscle in the shoulders, ropes of power in their arms. They also had speed and talent, but a lot of hard work went into to making them number one and number two all-time on the Oregon rushing list. Fans don’t see behind the scenes at practice, and aren’t allowed in the Oregon weight room. It will be interesting to get a picture from summer workouts just before fall camp. What did TT do with his first off-season in college football? Is he serious enough about the game, or does he take his gifts for granted?
Meanwhile, he has two challengers. Byron Marshall isn’t as talented, but he squats 477 pounds. Last season the San Jose native was the team’s leading rusher with 1,038 yards and 14 tds. He averaged the same per carry as his backfield mate, 6.2 a game, and put together a string of 5 100-yard games in the PAC-12 conference schedule. That’s consistency. Marshall suffered an injury against Arizona, and when Tyner got his big chance in the Civil War, he ran brilliantly, 140 yards, including a 40-yard burst on the opening play of the game. Mariota took over against Texas–the Longhorns scheme neutralized the backs and invited the Ducks swift qb to carry the running load. Big mistake.
Kani Benoit, Lane Roseberry, Kenny Bassett and Ayele Forde are all hard workers in the Remene Alston tradition, and each will push the high school All-Americans in practice. Each will run hard when they get their touches, and if disaster strikes, any one of them will run to the hole and follow Oregon’s veteran offensive line in a workmanlike performance. Benoit blew the varsity up at times on the scout team last year, a 2,000-yard rusher as an Arizona prep.
But the third protagonist in this story is man-child Royce Freeman of Imperial, California, the 6-0, 230-pound freshman who comes to campus in June. He’s powerful, every bit as gifted as the other two, serious and determined. Freeman should help immediately with the short yardage and goal line punch of the Oregon attack, a big back who runs with authority, but he also has the blend of vision and acceleration to challenge immediately for a significant share of the carries. Campbell treats his backs like sons, and they’ll all give him a strong effort.
The offensive line should also be improved, provided Tyler Johnstone rehabs successfully from an ACL injury. They return 107 starts, a phenomenal number, and they’ve added a big, nimble offensive guard from the JC ranks in Haniteli Lousi, 6-5, 295, a bulldozer leading out in front of a running play.
It’s going to be a fascinating battle-within-the-battle, watching these guys compete for the lead role. If they push each other and bond the way James and Barner did, Oregon could have the best backfield in the country and one of the best the conference has ever seen.