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Willie Taggart's 'recruiting' visit to Royce Freeman paid off

EUGENE, Ore. -- When Oregon running back Royce Freeman left Eugene last winter after finishing up exams, he knew he wanted to spend some time consulting people in his life about his NFL decision. He expected to talk with his family and friends, former Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell and some others who had coached him over the years.

But he didn’t expect to hear from new Oregon coach Willie Taggart, who got to campus after most players had already left for winter break. And he certainly didn’t expect to hear from him in the form of a home visit, not unlike the ones Taggart was conducting with 2017 recruits last December.

“It was a surprise to me,” Freeman said. “Not a lot of coaches would do that with me being a part of the team already, but he went out of his way to show much he cares about his players.”

Taggart wanted to let Freeman know -- in the running back's living room in Imperial, California -- that he saw him not only as a talented back who had plenty of options but as a player who could continue to be important to the program -- so much so that Taggart would come off the recruiting trail when he already had a condensed amount of time to sign a class.

“It was good to get him around my family and hear what he had to say,” Freeman said. “Hearing all the little details and what he had planned for the future -- and he has followed up on all that. He didn’t make any promises that I didn’t feel like he’d be able to keep.”

One of those promises was likely about how much Taggart expected to rely on Freeman -- FBS’ leading active rusher coming into next season (4,146 yards) -- during the 2017 season.

“It’s not fitting [him] into what I do, it’s fitting into what Royce does,” Taggart said. “We’re not going to complicate it or reinvent anything. We’re going to let Royce be Royce and play ball.”

And Freeman didn’t have to look too deep into the past of Taggart, a former triple-option quarterback himself, to get an idea of how run-heavy his final season at Oregon could be under Taggart.

At USF, after transitioning into his “Gulf Coast offense,” Taggart’s team went from finishing near the bottom of the FBS in rushing yards in 2013 and 2014 to finishing 11th in 2015 (3,205 yards) and fifth in 2016 (3,709 yards). A lot of those rushing yards were thanks to mobile quarterback Quinton Flowers, who led the Bulls in rushing last season with 1,530 yards.

With Flowers complemented by running back Marlon Mack, the Bulls leaned heavily on the run in offensive playcalling. They rushed the ball on 61 percent of offensive plays in 2016 and 66 percent of plays in 2015. During Freeman’s career, the most the Ducks have ever utilized the rush was 62 percent during his sophomore season in 2015.

Those kinds of numbers certainly weren’t lost on Freeman. And better yet, one of Taggart’s holdovers from his USF staff now in Eugene was Donte Pimpleton, who coached the Bulls’ running backs the past two seasons.

“Having Coach Taggart here adds to the comfort level,” Freeman said. “And the staff, seeing who he brought in, makes me feel as if we can do big things.”

One main difference when translating Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense to Oregon is that quarterback Justin Herbert, who’s expected to retain his role as the starter, isn’t nearly as mobile as Flowers.

In that regard, this team is far more like Stanford in the late 2000s, when Taggart coached running backs for the Cardinal. He has already said that Freeman reminds him a bit of former Stanford back Toby Gerhart, who combined for more than 3,000 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns in his final two seasons in Palo Alto. During his senior season, Gerhart led the FBS in rushing and won the Doak Walker Award.

Taggart saw that kind of potential in Freeman and hoped he would return for a final go-round. But in order to do that, Taggart knew that just as he was out recruiting high schoolers for the future of the Ducks' program, he also would need to recruit Freeman, who would be more important to the 2017 future of this team than any other piece.