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Behind stable of talented tailbacks, Oregon's offense more than Mariota

EUGENE, Ore. -- Byron Marshall hears the chatter. Gary Campbell doesn’t listen. And Royce Freeman, well, he’s just happy to be a part of it.

All offseason long, people have talked -- in bars and chat rooms and on TV sets -- about Oregon’s chances at a national championship. The thinking is that the Ducks only have a shot if quarterback Marcus Mariota stays healthy. Marshall, a three-year veteran in Oregon’s system, gets it.

Mariota commands most of the media attention -- and a good chunk of an opposing defense’s. But surely No. 7 Michigan State, which comes to town this week in one of the premier nonconference matchups of the 2014 season, and the Spartans’ stout defense know what Marshall, Freeman and Campbell know, too. Oregon’s ascent to the upper echelon of college football over the past decade has been built on the success of great running backs.

Long before Mariota came into the picture there was Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. If the Ducks want to challenge for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff and contend for a national title this year, they know they can’t rely solely on Mariota and his superhero-like skills.

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“We’re not here to be Marcus’ sidekicks,” Marshall said. “We’re here to do our job. The backs here have always produced, even before Jonathan Stewart, and they’ve all gone to the league -- that’s part of why I came here.”

Of course, everyone wants to talk about Mariota, and his career numbers -- 7,811 total yards and 78 touchdowns during his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons -- will do that. But the Ducks’ net rushing yards will matter most when the Spartans come to Autzen Stadium on Saturday.

In Oregon’s two losses last year, the team averaged a measly 130 rushing yards per game, far below its season average of 273. The worst showing came against Stanford, when Oregon limped to 62 rushing yards in a 26-20 loss last November. Many will point to Mariota’s injured knee as a reason for the Ducks’ defeats, and absolutely, it played a role. But as Mariota, head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost have repeatedly stressed, Mariota tucking the ball and running is not necessarily part of the game plan. It’s all about reading and taking what the defense gives him.

Having Marshall, Freeman and sophomore Thomas Tyner run the ball is part of the plan, though.

Marshall, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior from San Jose, Calif., is the Ducks’ leading returning rusher, as he netted 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. Tyner, a former touted prospect who hails from Aloha, Ore. -- just 112 miles north of Eugene -- chipped in with 711 yards and nine scores last season. Freeman is the new kid on the block and doesn’t have any noteworthy statistics yet. However, at 6-feet and 230 pounds, he expects to hold his own with veteran linebackers. 

“When I was being recruited, coach Cam brought up Jonathan Stewart a lot,” Freeman said. “He explained to me that my running style doesn’t necessarily matter -- I can fit in with this offense no matter what.” 

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Campbell raves about this season’s stable of backs, saying it’s the most depth the Ducks have had in his 31 years in Eugene. Besides the trio of Marshall -- used occasionally as a slot receiver when Tyner lined up in the backfield in Oregon’s 62-13 rout of South Dakota last week -- Freeman and Tyner, Campbell praises the abilities of Kenny Bassett and Kani Benoit. “I’ve never had five guys who I could say I didn’t mind if any of them started -- but we do this year,” Campbell said. And he laughs when talking about the perception of Oregon’s attack.

“Our philosophy is not, ‘We’re going to run the ball down your throat,’” Campbell said. “But we have to be able to run the ball to throw it.”

If Mariota can make plays with his feet, he is certainly more than welcome, Campell says. It’s just that the majority of that load should fall to his guys. 

As the Ducks have morphed into a perennial top-10 program that routinely features All-America running backs, a transition that sped up with the hiring of Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator in 2007, there has been a noticeable uptick in four- and five-star recruits packing their bags for Eugene. The Ducks have signed seven of the nation’s best running back prospects in the last five years, including Freeman, Marshall, Tyner and De'Anthony Thomas, who was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth round of the NFL draft in May.

“Any back who wants to be a star, or exposed for his running skills, this is the place to do it,” Campbell said. “I don’t have to tell a running back [prospect] about what our guys are doing -- they’ll tell me.”

Such was the case with Freeman and James. As a prep star at Imperial (Calif.) High, Freeman studied James, who burst onto the scene in 2009 and amassed 5,082 rushing yards during his college career from 2009-11. Freeman liked his intensity and determination. "For a smaller back, he played big man football," Freeman said. "I watched all college football, but he was on the main stage.”

Eager to see if he could find a place in a long line of standout backs -- consider that Oregon has led the conference in rushing every year since 2006, and after James left for the NFL, Barner ran for 1,767 yards in ‘12 with little preseason fanfare -- Freeman signed with the Ducks in February. 

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After Oregon thrashed South Dakota in the opener, Campbell wondered if he had realistic expectations for this crop of backs so early in the season. He was pleased with the production, but said there’s plenty of work to do. Marshall led the group with 90 yards on eight carries, while Freeman (75 yards and two touchdowns on 10 attempts) and Tyner (64 yards on 11 carries) both contributed. Marshall also led the team, somewhat surprisingly, in receiving, making eight catches for 138 yards with two scores. Still, he’s not about to become a full-time slot receiver.

“It proved to be good for him and good for us,” Campbell said. “He catches the ball well, obviously … He got 1,000 yards last year, so he can do different things.”

Added Freeman: “Byron is an electric player who can fill in anywhere on the field. We’re going to use him in all the ways we can.”

Campbell said that Freeman made a few freshman mistakes, and Freeman admitted sheepishly that it might have been a byproduct of the offense’s pace. “I didn’t anticipate the speed,” he laughed. “We go really fast in practice but, wow, when you’re on the field, you can get a little overwhelmed.”

Campbell hopes that’s how the Michigan State defense feels on Saturday -- heads spinning, ears ringing, eyes trying to find the latest Oregon running back who has just taken off downfield.