Offensive linemen like it when a running back can take care of himself in pass protection.
And believe Oregon center Hroniss Grasu when he said freshman running back Royce Freeman can take care of himself.
“He’s got bowling balls for shoulders,” Grasu said and laughed. “I’ve got to watch out for myself when I talk to him. I’ve got to make sure I’m really nice to him.”
At 6 feet and 229 pounds, Freeman has not only stood up in pass protection, he has carried a load for the Oregon running game.
He is the Ducks’ leading rusher with 1,343 yards and averaged 17.4 carries a game in the regular season. He carried 21 times in the Pac-12 championship game against Arizona. Last week against Florida State in the Rose Bowl, he carried 12 times and scored twice in short yardage.
The Ducks have been riding on those bowling-ball shoulders.
“I like to get carries,” Freeman said this week in Eugene before the Ducks left for Arlington to get ready for Monday’s national championship game against Ohio State. “I don’t have a problem with it. As a running back, you want the ball as many times as you can. I feel like with more carries, the better I get during the game, so it’s something I don’t have a problem with.”
The load doesn’t necessarily have to be all his anymore. Thomas Tyner was healthy in time for the Rose Bowl and split the carries with Freeman.
“He showed a lot of impact. It was great to have him back,” Freeman said. “We were very versatile back there — a lot of combinations. It was a great feeling to have him back there.”
But when he was needed most, it did not surprise running backs coach Gary Campbell to see Freeman take the load. The veteran assistant coach from Ennis said he knew when he was recruiting Freeman out of high school in Imperial, Calif., that Freeman would play right away because he was talented enough and had the physical size to take the pounding.
“I knew he wasn’t going to redshirt,” Campbell said. “There aren’t many freshmen like that one. He’s a very mature kid, learned the offense very well. I had no problem with Royce at all. The only thing was, he was kind of paralyzed because he wasn’t familiar with the offense and he had to learn some things.”
It is 14 games later. Freeman has learned plenty, and the Ducks have learned plenty about him.
“He’s an humble kid. Can take it,” left tackle Jake Fisher said. “He knows what he believes in, knows himself, is a believer of himself and his game, and goes out there and gets the job done.”
Coach Mark Helfrich said, “He’s got a great personality to be great at anything, whether he was a congressman or a tailback or business owner. He has a smile on his face, asks great questions and goes to work. He’s a pretty calm character — just goes out and goes to work.”
That’s about all the ambition Freeman had for himself as a freshman at Oregon — work hard, fill a role.
“Last year I was in high school — I didn’t even make it to the high school championship game or anything like that,” he said. “I’m blessed to be here.”
Just about everyone has stopped thinking of Freeman as a freshman.
Grasu, a fifth-year senior center, smiles about it.
“Ever since he got here, he didn’t act like a freshman, he didn’t play like a freshman,” Grasu said. “He played like a veteran. He’s so mature for his age, it really makes me proud to see Royce every single day. I always make sure I thank him. He makes our job easier.”
Offensive linemen like that.
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7760
College Football Playoff National Championship
Oregon vs. Ohio State
7:30 p.m. Monday, AT&T Stadium