(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
All things considered, junior Royce Freeman may be the most dangerous running back that Arizona State will face all season.
At least defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood thinks so.
“He is one of the top running backs in the league,” Smallwood said. “He has it all: the size, the speed, that one step to get downhill. This is going to be the best running back corps that we have faced all year.”
By corps, Smallwood meant they will have to look out for more than just Freeman. His backups Tony Brooks-James and Kani Benoit have combined for nine touchdowns this season. A three-headed monster at running back is rare in college football, but Freeman is “the man” in their heralded rushing attack.
This season’s squad isn’t your typical Ducks team. They have lost five straight, a far cry from the days of Chip Kelly leading them to a National Championship game and Marcus Mariota winning a Heisman Trophy.
A lot of Oregon’s struggles have been due to a defense that looks more like that of a junior college than a Pac-12 school. It doesn’t take a brilliant football mind to detect that allowing over 43 points per game is not the recipe for a winning formula.
However, the offense has had its fair share of bumps in the road as well.
In addition to starting four freshmen on the offensive line, the Ducks started Justin Herbert, a true freshman, at quarterback in last week’s loss to Cal. Herbert was inconsistent when it came to completing passes, so naturally Freeman will public enemy No. 1 of the ASU defense.
Freeman excelled against the Sun Devils last season in a marathon of a game that went to three overtimes. He rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns against ASU, and had a successful season overall that saw him rush for 100-plus yards in 11 of his 13 games.
Smallwood believes that the defense had a better game than the stats show, as a 64-yard run was a big reason why Freeman exceeded 100 yards on the ground.
“It’s the same thing as last year,” Smallwood said regarding the game plan. “To continue to do it for four quarters. One big run could be the difference in the game.”
Against more run-focused teams like Colorado and USC, the Sun Devils have struggled. Justin Davis of the Trojans ran for 123 yards, while Colorado torched ASU’s defensive line for 315 yards two weeks ago.
Smallwood, defensive end JoJo Wicker and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson all share the same sentiment regarding Freeman’s skillset, which is that he runs with speed and power, a rare combination these days in the college ranks.
Freeman is relatively short, just 5-foot-11, but makes up for it by being 230 pounds. His speed is a dynamic complement, as he has broken multiple 75-plus yard runs this season.
Wicker emphasized that the defense will need to drive through their tackles, rather than simply wrapping him up.
“He is one of the best backs in the Pac,” Wicker said, echoing Smallwood’s statement. “He is a balanced back. He has speed.”
Smallwood also noted the explosiveness that Freeman possesses. With that being said, the running back has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury, a ray of hope for a defense that is seventh in the country when it comes to stopping the run. The health problems that Freeman is undergoing won’t be something that affects ASU’s game plan, however.
“Nothing changes for us,” Smallwood said. “Every week we go in trying to dominate the run. That’s our goal. Make them one-dimensional. Not keep them balanced.”
Patterson has studied Freeman extensively and has made sure he has prepared his defense aptly.
During his weekly time with the media, Patterson gave Freeman the ultimate compliment for someone at the college level.
“He is an NFL running back,” Patterson said. “He’s more deceptive. When he is healthy, you better bring your lunch pail when you are going to tackle him because you aren’t going to go knock him down. You have to create population and get multiple people and gang tackle him.”
The Sun Devils didn’t face the run all that much last week, so the coaching staff has been adjusting its players from a pass-oriented team to one that is more run focused, a transition that they have faced a few times already this season.
“Our coaches do a good job of changing the game plan,” Smallwood said. “It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, it’s just putting more of an emphasis on it and focusing on our specific jobs and things we have to do.”
Making the running game, and Freeman especially, a non-factor might ultimately determine whether ASU earns its sixth win of the season and becomes bowl eligible on Saturday.