Tyner improves as does freshman, Royce Freeman
Oregon Ducks running back Byron Marshall (9) breaks a tackle by Washington Huskies linebacker Shaq Thompson (7) during the 2nd half at Husky Stadium. Oregon defeated Washington 45-24. - Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
The pressure is on for Oregon sophomore running back Thomas Tyner.
Tuesday's declaration by UO coach Mark Helfrich and running backs coach Gary Campbell that freshman Royce Freemen is challenging for the starting job is both a testament to his abilities as much as it is a reflection of Tyner's progress.
If Tyner, a former five-star recruit out Aloha High School, isn't careful he could find himself relegated to the position of career backup, playing the role of Kenjon Barner to Freeman's LaMichael James.
It would be a shame because based on pure ability, Tyner should be on his way to a 1,500-yard, 18-touchdown season while working his way toward becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2015.
He's that good. But is he that tough, both physically and mentally? Does he want it?
Many questioned these things about Tyner last season when he was viewed by some as a petulant freshman whose ego dwarfed a locker room full of swollen egos. He got knocked back down to earth in a hurry during practices and had to build himself back up. Tyner succeeded, and by all accounts has matured and improved his work ethic and practice habits. Tyner claims he improved in the ares of playing with more physicality.
Yet none of this, apparently, has been enough to avoid allowing a true freshman with lesser credentials to potentially steal some of his thunder.
Tyner’s words Wednesday were revealing. He admitted that last year at times he didn’t want to be at practice and described himself as a "little kid," a "little freshman" not willing to work as hard as he needed to in order to succeed.
Freeman, on the other hand, is the exact opposite.
“Royce is here and he wants to be here,” Tyner said. “You can tell by the way he runs, the way he practices.”
Tyner is watching the 6-foot, 229-pounder closely, seeing a young man do all of the things as a freshman that he didn't.
“I think Royce is ahead more maturely than I was last year,” Tyner said.
Being able to admit such things should be applauded. It takes a big man to examine his own faults. Tyner's words might include at least a twinge of regret that he didn't approach the game the way Freeman has out of the gate.
“Not a lot of guys come in and play the way he has been able to," Freeman said. "I’m expecting big things from him this year.”
Could they come at Tyner's expense?
Keep in mind that Tyner (5-11, 215) looked great last season in game action. He rushed for 711 yards and nine touchdowns on 6.2 yards per carry as the backup to De’Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall.
Speaking of Marshall..
Campbell said Tuesday that the junior remained the starter, for now. He led the team in rushing last season (1,038 yards, 14 touchdowns). He is a gifted player in his own right but he lacks the "it" factor that Tyner and Freeman possess.
Marshall is fast, but not in Tyner's league. Marshall is the smallest of the three at 5-10, 205 pounds, and has the least chance of becoming an impact runner at the next level. Oregon can win with Marshall starting. But in the same way Barner, though good, was never at James' level, the same could be said about Marshall when comparing him to Tyner and Freeman.
In terms of overall gifts, Tyner and Freeman are on the level of Jonathan Stewart, easily the most talented running back in program history. Marshall is in the class of Jeremiah Johnson.
Oregon's practices are closed, so all we have to go by is what coaches and players are saying about Freeman, and his high school highlight reels. They are impressive. A man that big shouldn't be able to cut that nimbly and accelerate that quickly. These talents are typically reserved for NFL first-round picks, something Freeman might become on day.
So too could Tyner.
Remember, Rivals.com rated Tyner as the No. 2 running back in the country coming out of high school in 2013. Rivals last year rated Freeman as a four-star recruit and the No. 8 running back.
Come game day, recruiting rankings mean about as little as having unlimited uniform combinations. But recruiting rankings do provide an indication of perceived talent. However, they can't measure desire.
“I think we’re all out there competing for that spot and coach Campbell is going to do what he decides to do,” Tyner said.
He believes that plan will include all three running backs seeing time, which makes sense. Should that prove to be correct, then the player who produces the most is going to gradually see more touches and eventually separate himself from the others.
Oregon has had two running backs equally share the workload in the past, but never three, at least not with much impact. Onterrio Smith and Maurice Morris each gained 1,000 yards in 2001. Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount did the same in 2008. Not many backfields are big enough for three. Eventually someone gets left behind.
There is no shame in playing the same role Barner did from 2009 to 2011. He left Oregon as the program's second most prolific rusher behind James after a tremendous senior year in 2012. But Tyner came to Oregon with the expectations of becoming a transcendent player, not a sidekick.
There's still time. The belief here is that if Tyner wants it bad enough he could still be the player everyone envisioned he would be when he signed with Oregon. Maybe Freeman's talent and desire will push Tyner to reach deeper than he ever has before.
Tyner said that Freeman has adapted to the college game faster than he did.
“He’s making big moves right now,” Tyner said.
One such move could be to permanently move past Tyner on the depth chart if he's not careful.