Shortly after he was hired by the Ducks last year, Oregon coach Willie Taggart traveled to Imperial, California, to convince running back Royce Freeman to stay in Eugene for his senior season.
It was no casual detour on Taggart’s holiday break. Imperial is about a two hour’s drive east of San Diego.
”When I was getting ready to leave, he walked me out to the car and said, `Coach, I’m coming back,’ and I screamed like a cheerleader `Yeeaaahhhh!”’ Taggart said.
Freeman is among several standout seniors across the Pac-12 who stayed in school rather than departing early for the NFL. For some of them, like Freeman, the decision is paying off.
Freeman’s senior season means that he’ll leave a lasting legacy in Oregon’s record books. He has an (ongoing) school-record 5,364 career rushing yards. He’s got 54 career rushing touchdowns, also a record, as well an Oregon-best 29 games with 100 or more yards rushing.
He needs five more rushing touchdowns for the Pac-12 mark set by Oregon State’s Ken Simonton from 1998-2001.
A sturdy 5-foot-11, 231-pound back, Freeman said he returned to complete a degree this summer in general social science with an emphasis on crime, law and society, while also ”finishing on a better note than I did last year.” He struggled with injuries throughout his junior season.
Freeman is projected as a middle-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. If the Ducks (5-5, 2-5) make it to a bowl game, his stock could rise.
”You want to make sure they make the best decision for themselves,” Taggart said about counseling players making the choice. ”It’s not about me or anything. It’s about that young man. Sometimes they get false information, so you try your best to feed him with all the right information for him to make the best decision for him and his family.”
Some of the other Pac-12 players who stayed in school for their senior seasons:
LUKE FALK, quarterback, Washington State: Falk is probably the most prominent player in the league to eschew bolting early.
Falk has set Washington State records for TD passes, passing yardage and total offense. He has the Pac-12 record with 13,801 (and counting) passing yards, and is one touchdown shy of USC’s Matt Barkley for the league record for career TD passes (116).
Like many in his position, Falk consulted the NFL Draft Advisory Committee last winter. But ultimately he opted for a final season with the Cougars. He’s considered an early-round pick in the draft.
”Almost without exception they’re better off staying in school,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. ”They’re nearly always encouraged to do that by the NFL. The NFL doesn’t care whether you come out this year or next year, they feel like if you’re good enough to play in their league they’ll get you anyway. The more polished you are, the better chance you have of making the team, the better your odds of enhancing their product.”
Leach noted that quarterbacks in particular tend to be better in the pros the longer they stay in school.
PHILLIP LINDSAY, running back, Colorado: Lindsay led the league last season with 16 rushing touchdowns. This season he’s averaging 133.4 yards rushing per game with 12 touchdowns. He’s ranked fourth nationally with 1,334 total rushing yards this season.
Like Freeman, he could benefit if the Buffaloes (5-5, 2-5) are able to play in a bowl game. Lindsay is thought to be a mid-draft selection.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said that as a former NFL assistant, he can offer young players perspective but ultimately it’s a personal decision.
”We’re excited that Phillip came back, and I think he definitely is, too,” MacIntyre said. ”I think he wanted to finish out the right way, and I think he’s done that.”
LOWELL LOTULELEI, defensive tackle, Utah: Lotulelei was dinged up last season as a junior so he decided to stick around for his senior year, and is widely considered to be among the top NFL prospects at defensive tackle and a possible second-round pick.
In addition to his size, he’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 320, he also has a good role model in the NFL: His brother Star Lotulelei, who went to the Carolina Panthers as a first-round pick in 2013.
Star Lotulelei also stayed for his senior year at Utah.
”Lowell took that same path. And I think in Lowell’s case it was the right decision,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. ”Some guys are ready to move on, and if you’re going to be a draft choice at a certain round, you should go. If you’re not, you need to stay. … In Lowell’s case he followed the example of his older brother and he decided to stay.”
DANTE PETTIS, wide receiver, Washington: Pettis never really considered leaving school early for the NFL – or if he did, he didn’t tell Huskies coach Chris Petersen. Instead, he did something kind of unconventional: He went out for the track and field team last spring, competing in the long jump.
Pettis set the NCAA record for career punt returns for touchdowns in a victory over Oregon last weekend. He now has nine . He also tied the single-season record for punt returns for touchdowns with four.
Petersen said a jump to the NFL wouldn’t have been a good move for Pettis because he’s gotten markedly better this year. He’s a projected second-round pick by many.
”Everybody’s in such a hurry, that’s the trend, to get there and make the money, and we all understand that,” Petersen said. ”But it’s all about your development and your maturity, as a person and a player, to be able to help you to do that (play in the pros) for a long time.”
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25