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'Rolls Royce' Freeman keeps Oregon's offense running smoothly

EUGENE, Ore. -- Running back Royce Freeman isn't all of Oregon's offense, but you could argue that he makes all of it possible.

Through three quarterbacks in three years, constant shuffling of the offensive line, and different stars in the pass game at different times, the one constant in the Ducks' offense since they kicked off the 2014 schedule against South Dakota State has been Freeman.

Since then, he has cracked 100 rushing yards 18 times in 30 games, including his past 10 games against FBS opponents. Through two games this season, he has 294 yards and four touchdowns, and his 207-yard performance against Virginia was the second 200-yard rushing performance of his career.

"As a football player, I think he's about as good as it gets from a talent standpoint," Oregon offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said.

At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, he has proved himself as a bruiser. He can take contact and keep going without a problem. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry after contact in his first two seasons with the Ducks. This year, he is averaging 4.6 yards, tied for third-best among Power 5 running backs.

Against Virginia, he averaged 6.4 yards after contact per carry, his second-best figure in a game behind the 6.9 he averaged against Washington State in 2015.

This season, he has shown an even greater ability to be a more precise back who can find those sometimes smaller holes between the tackles. In 2016, he is averaging an FBS-best 14.4 yards per carry between the tackles, up from his 2015 and 2014 totals of 6.0 and 5.2, respectively. He leads all Power 5 players this season with 216 rushing yards inside of the tackles.

"Royce can do a ton of different things," Lubick said. "We can utilize him in the passing game. We can utilize him as an inside runner, as an outside runner. So he gives us a lot of options."

Freeman's ability has made him a known entity in the Pac-12. He is third among the Ducks' all-time leading rushers, with 3,495 yards, but as his yardage and notoriety have grown, so, too, has his impact when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.

His presence on the field this season has been a red flag to opposing defensive coordinators. It's as if there's an arrow hanging over his head that reads, "First-down machine located here."

Coordinators can't ignore Freeman, who is averaging 9.2 yards per carry and 8.5 yards per reception. With his presence bringing defenses closer to the line of scrimmage, quarterback Dakota Prukop, the offensive line, and the receivers have been given more choices and more favorable matchups.

"He gives you so many options, because he can do so many things," Lubick said.

That doesn't mean Lubick is going to add 20 new aspects to the offense -- he doesn't need to reinvent the wheel in Eugene -- but he has shown that he knows where to lean in this offense: Freeman, both as a runner and as a pass-catcher.

So far this season, the Ducks have run the ball 57 percent of the time. That's about in line with what Oregon has done over the past two seasons, rushing on 62 percent of downs in 2015 and 58 percent of downs in 2014.

This year, the running backs have been quite involved in the pass game, more so than they were the previous two seasons. In 2014, the running backs accounted for 8.6 percent of the team's receptions. Last season, that number rose to 16 percent. Through two games in 2016, the running backs have accounted for 19 percent of Oregon's receptions, or eight of the 42.

Now the Ducks head to Lincoln, Nebraska, to face the toughest challenge of their nonconference schedule. Nebraska's defensive line and linebackers will be the best Freeman has seen, giving him another opportunity to shine on a big stage.

With his past achievements and with Lubick calling the offense, count on Freeman to be featured again and again as the Ducks look for an answer to the Cornhuskers.

He's known by fans and students on campus, after all, as the Ducks' "Rolls Royce," Oregon's luxury automobile. But the Ducks know that he's not necessarily the car. He might seem that way, especially with how durable he has been, but for the Ducks, he has been more like the fuel and the oil -- keeping them and everything else running smoothly.