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Oregon's Royce Freeman finding his voice as a leader

Royce Freeman led the Ducks in rushing last season with 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns. Scott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports

BURBANK, Calif. -- For most of last season, Oregon running back Royce Freeman let his play do the talking. In a crowded running back room, Freeman came to the front when it came to his carries and yardage, but not as much when it came to being a leader. That he left to his elders, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.

But by the spring, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich approached Freeman and asked him to have his mouth step up a bit, too.

With the Oregon offense losing two of its best leaders -- Marcus Mariota and Hroniss Grasu -- to the NFL, it was in desperate need of players stepping up and leading.

Freeman, who had only led by example up until that point, made it a priority this spring.

"I'm working on that and trying to put an emphasis on that and I've starting with my running back corps., and having that leak into the other parts of the offense and the team," Freeman said.

But even now ask Freeman how he describes himself as a leader and he'll say soft spoken or that being vocal isn't his strong suit, but he seems far more comfortable fielding questions from the media than he was a year ago.

And having a quieter leader isn't necessarily a bad thing for Oregon. Several of their best leaders, including Mariota, of late have been quiet and it has served the Ducks incredibly well.

"That's something that we've kind of talked about for a few years now in regard to my leadership and how I can use my voice as an influential tool," Mariota said last season. "For the most part it was me being more assertive. … I really feel that I've come a long way in that sense."

And Helfrich describes Freeman as a leader in the mold of Mariota, someone who had to be pushed in the way of becoming more vocal by understanding that ultimately it would benefit the team.

"A simple way to communicate it to him or guys like him is ‘Would our team be better off if more guys were like you?' And you kind of go, ‘Yes, of course,' " explained Helfrich. "So, just trying to facilitate those things and not make it fake. But facilitate positions of leadership for him to be in. We did that, and very pleased with how that's progressing."

The first big sign of Freeman becoming more vocal came last week at the Pac-12 media days as Freeman sat at a table and answered questions from the media for 30-plus minutes.

It's not that he wouldn't have done that a year ago if Helfrich had asked him, but it was the ease with which he fielded questions and how comfortable -- even as a sophomore -- he seemed in the spotlight.

Freeman said he remembered watching Mariota and Derrick Malone attend last season and wondered when he might have the opportunity to do something like that. It came sooner than anticipated, but it was great practice for Freeman to become more vocal.

"I took the opportunity," Freeman said. "I'm using it as a chance, an opportunity to express my leadership and help my team."

And in an offseason that has left the Ducks with more question marks on the offense than they would've liked going into the season, a positive of Freeman taking on that leadership role certainly does something to ease the minds of Helfrich and the Oregon offensive staff.

"One of our biggest offseason concerns initially was leadership," Helfrich said. "We lost several leaders on both sides of the ball that were all-time great leader type guys, and really, really pleased about coming out of both winter conditioning and spring football of getting that solidified and very pleased with where that is."