With the Ducks revealing little in anticipation of next week’s non-conference pièce de résistance, it was two true freshmen left to dominate the storylines from Saturday’s game:
The Unveiling of Royce Freeman
Kickoff wasn’t until 7:30 Saturday night, but the texts came early in the morning:
“Is Royce going to live up to the hype?”
Of all the question marks that could make or break the 2014 season, the output of Oregon’s third-string running back (I’m sorry, co-first string running back, though I will point out he was the third running back to enter the game) would not be the one that people would say will define this season’s outcome.
Presumably, that is one of the inevitable effects of starting the season against FCS competition: there’s nothing to learn about the known entities (unless they are a complete disaster), so evaluating the unknown quantities takes on more weight. Especially someone who was a five-star recruit named co-starting running back as a true freshman.
“We’ll see. Perfect spot, 3rd back like Tyner, Marshall and DAT their 1st yrs. All success a bonus. All mistakes blamed on youth.” I responded.
Living up to the hype is arguably the greatest challenge a college football player can face. Meeting expectations once only raises the bar thereafter, inflating it until the only way a player can meet expectations is by winning the Heisman Trophy, which exactly one player per year can do.
Conversely, established players are always working against hype backlash, it isn’t a coincidence that the Heisman Trophy winner the past two seasons has been a freshman; they are the only players whose hype hasn’t become oversaturated in the long-term public conscience, which allows those players to ride one season’s tidal wave of success to the Heisman. Of course, if that Heisman winner returns for another season, the public is immediately looking to discredit their success, even if they do better the following season on the grounds that they “didn’t improve enough.”
All of which were reasons I was reluctant to buy into the Freeman hype. Like the aforementioned Tyner, Marshall, and De’Anthony Thomas, all three faced challenges as running backs their freshmen years, yet were talented enough to soften that learning curve with raw skill. I expect Freeman will probably face similar learning experiences; heaping otherworldly expectations on a player who was still in high school during this year’s Spring Game is unfair to them and their development.
Not that I could do anything about it, as the slow burn of Freeman’s expectations had transformed into a runaway locomotive. The highly-regarded recruit was now the highly-regarded true freshman, one named the starting running back, while wearing the number of arguably the greatest running back in school history.
That buzz was palpable Saturday at Autzen Stadium, as you could hear entire sections of fans turning to one another like gossiping hens playing a game of telephone the very first moment Freeman set foot on the field of play. “It’s Royce. Freeman’s in the game. Guys, Royce’s on the field. There’s Royce.”
Making it all the more amazing to see what Freeman did on Saturday night.
It’s one thing to generate hype prior to knowledge what someone can do; it’s another to see the outcome and still be talking about them. That’s what happened Saturday night, from halftime in the Moshofsky Center to texts from friends across the country: for all that went on in the first half, the topic on everyone’s minds was the same. Royce Freeman and his two touchdowns, one which was very reminiscent of the last running back to wear No. 21, had the Oregon fanbase abuzz.
Nothing is guaranteed, nor should anything exceptional be expected from Freeman, even after Saturday’s game. Next week against Michigan State, he will still be a true freshman playing against his first-ever FBS opponent. However, if he can sustain what he showed Saturday night, he will be another special player in a long line of great Oregon running backs.
Freeman Not the Only Freshman Living up to His Number
Six different players had a statistically measurable return for Oregon against South Dakota (seven, if you think DeForest Buckner has a chance to be in the mix). One of those who didn’t get an opportunity was Devon Allen. South Dakota chose kicking to fans in Row 12 over allowing Allen the opportunity to return. (While disappointing for Duck fans, it was probably a wise choice for the Coyotes.)
The multitude of players fielding kicks was part of return situation, which special teams coach Tom Osborne described by saying “nobody’s perfect yet so we’re trying to find our best option.”
The player with the most compelling argument for being the “best option” was true freshman Charles Nelson, whose 50-yard punt return was arguably the game’s most electric play. Nelson’s weaving return, while sporting the No. 6, gave fans flashes of deja vu, as the crowd collectively wondered “wait, De’Anthony Thomas turned pro, right?” Indeed he did, as it was Nelson, not Thomas, cutting through the Coyote punt team. Nelson isn’t Thomas, but embodied the long time Duck motto “next man up” by doing his best Thomas impression.
I joked that there were “a lot of Charles Nelson jerseys” at Autzen Stadium Saturday night. Obviously, most of those jerseys were purchased while that No. 6 belonged to Thomas, long before Nelson ever set foot on campus. Yet if Nelson can keep replicating the return skills he showed Saturday, fans will be wearing their “Charles Nelson” jerseys instead of their “De’Anthony Thomas” ones to Autzen Stadium this fall.
Top image by Craig Strobeck