From the outside looking in at Oregon’s backfield, it appears the Ducks are set.

After all, they return sophomore Royce Freeman (1,365 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns) and junior Thomas Tyner (573 yards and five touchdowns). But though running backs coach Gary Campbell believes that Freeman and Tyner are “as good as any in the conference,” he knows the Ducks’ rotation must go deeper than that.

That’s why Campbell spent spring practices attempting to cultivate a running back into a steady third option as a hedge against injuries.

Campbell discussed Oregon’s best options for a third back and much more in the third installment of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s series of “exit interviews” with Oregon assistant coaches before they begin their summer vacations. 

What did you want to accomplish in spring practices, and did that happen?

I just wanted to kind of develop the guys we had here. Obviously wanted to get a little bit more out of Thomas (Tyner), to have him pick up where he left off the season and he pretty much did that. And to obviously keep Royce at a high level and to get him to continue to improve and we got that from him. Those two guys had I think a really good spring and I think we brought Kani (Benoit) along a bit to get him a little more solidified in what we’re doing. Tony (Brooks) James was another guy who we concentrated on but the problem is we started him off a little bit at wide receiver so he was a little bit behind and not quite where I wanted him to be with his knowledge of the offense coming out of the backfield. But I was pleased with his athletic ability and everything. It’s just a matter of getting him on the same page. My goal for the spring was just to really kind of solidify that third position and I can’t say that we really got that done but we’ve got some prospects. Going into the fall I think that obviously Tony will be a little bit more versed and hopefully Kani will continue to get better.

How do you see a third running back, whoever it is — I’ve assumed it’s Tony Brooks-James, because of the praise he got in spring — fitting into the backfield rotation?

It just depends on how things go. As you know, guys get injured all the time so it’s always, you’ve got to have that third guy and it takes one of those guys in that two-man rotation to get injured. And then also when we get into a situation, and hopefully we’ll have a lot of them, where the game is in hand and you don’t want to keep those starting guys in you want to have a player who’s still a quality guy in there who can keep the game going and still be productive. You also want to have that third guy in case one of the top two guys get hurt, who’s willing and ready to step right into that two-man rotation. 

Ducks running back Kani Benoit (29) carries during Oregon’s spring game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on May 2. 

Who helped themselves most in spring?

I’d say Kani definitely helped himself this spring and I think Tony is going to be better. Tony obviously was nursing that bad ankle and everything and then he had some other little things going on with his back, I think, to start off with and now that he’s healthy he’s in a position to really start giving us some quality work. I think Tony’s going to be fine but like I said he started off working a lot at the wide receiver position and then came on over to playing more running back so he didn’t get a full spring yet at either position. That kind of hurts sometimes, particularly for a young guy because he’s still learning, so now he’s going to try to learn two positions and sometimes he doesn’t get the best out of them at either one.

How about biggest strength heading into fall?

I would say probably at our running back position our biggest strength is we have two really quality guys back there and when they’re healthy they’re as good as any in the conference. I would think that would be a strong point. And I think we have pretty good prospective offensive line if we can keep everybody healthy. They’ll be the strength of the offense I believe.

What will be this unit’s challenge once fall camp opens?

The challenge is to get a quarterback, to get somebody that’s going to be, obviously you’re not going to get anybody that’s going to be the same quality of the kid (Marcus Mariota) we just lost but we’ve got a good quality kid in there who can lead the team and can make some plays for us on offense.

What about for the running backs unit, though, what’s their challenge?

I don’t know what their challenge would be. I think we’ve got a couple good running backs, as good as any. They’ve got to learn to block a little better, I’d say. If they had anything that’s lacking it would be our pass blocking abilities and then, too, to learn a little more about our passing game, I think that’s one of the things, as well. So we can get them involved a bit more on the routes, that sort of thing.

Oregon running back Thomas Tyner rushed for more than 100 yards against Florida State in the College Football Playoff. 

How did you, as a coach, get better this offseason?

We’re always looking for new and better things to do. Better drills, ways to eliminate mistakes and that’s through teaching and repetition mainly. But you know I’ve been doing this for a long time, so you can only get so much out of it. I kind of know what I want and what I want to do. I haven’t explored any revelations or any new things that I need to do, I think we just need to do the things we do and do them better.

With uncertainty at quarterback, do you feel any extra pressure on your group to produce?

I think it is what it is, as far as what the running backs have to do. Yeah, you might say that it’s their responsibility but they’re always going to give it their best shot, they’re a great group of kids. If they’re called upon to deal with more I’m sure they’re ready for it. They don’t mind carrying the ball. The more carries the better as far as they’re concerned. I know from playing the position I’d like to get as many carries as I could possibly get and if having an inexperienced quarterback means more reps and more carries then I’m sure they’ll certainly welcome it. I certainly welcome it to see them get to carry it more. I don’t think they’ll feel any added pressure. It’ll actually be kind of fun to see them get to carry it a little more.

Has anything surprised you about this group after spring practices and the end of spring quarter?

One of the stats that surprised me was Mark (Helfrich) was telling us at the end of spring that we had a comparative spring as to what we had last year with Marcus being here as far as completions and yardage in practices and all that, which was a bit of a surprise. So I think a lot of people feel like wow, we’re going to drop off the edge of the earth since Marcus is gone but when we look back and compare this spring with last spring they’re pretty comparable.

Can you offer any details about how you’ll get away from football the next month?

Yeah I could tell you all about that! I’m leaving here and we’re taking my whole family — grandkids, kids and their spouses — and we’re going to the Bahamas. We’ll fly to Orlando and taking a Caribbean cruise and then coming back to Orlando and we’ll spend another week in Orlando with the kids at Disney World.

Previously: Ron Aiken on the defensive line, and Steve Greatwood on the offensive line.

— Andrew Greif
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503-221-8100
@andrewgreif

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