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Ducks are in the market for new leaders

EUGENE — Oregon football seems to attract the strong, silent types.

Marcus Mariota was the soft-spoken face of the program the past three seasons. Two years ago, then first-year head coach Mark Helfrich started encouraging the eventual Heisman Trophy winner to be more vocal with his teammates.

“Those kind of things, you can’t fake it. You can’t force it,” Helfrich said in July 2013. “He’s not going to jump up and down and throw chairs and get in a fist fight in the locker room — nor should he — but he is going to assert himself more and he did a nice job of that in the spring.”

With the loss of Mariota, Hroniss Grasu, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and a handful of other respected starters, the defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions are looking for new leaders to emerge this summer as the players work out together on campus away from the spotlight.

Helfrich said he would like Royce Freeman, his reticent running back, to help fill the void as the Ducks reload for another run at the College Football Playoff this fall.

“Each team has a different voice. Even in the evolution to lead last year’s team, three or four years ago Hroniss Grasu and Marcus were guys that were very quiet. Hroniss is a little more outgoing than Marcus. Keanon Lowe, kind of that same thing,” Helfrich said last week. “I think Royce Freeman is definitely a guy that needs to raise his voice and has. We tried to create situations and opportunities for him to be a leader.”

Freeman can certainly lead by example. Last year as a true freshman he walked onto campus with a chiseled NFL body, turned heads in practice and exceeded all of the preseason hype with 1,365 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.

Helfrich is taking Freeman and senior linebacker Rodney Hardrick with him to represent Oregon at the Pac-12 football media days event next month in Los Angeles.

“I’m just taking baby steps, just working on the little things and trying to help everybody out,” Freeman said after the May 2 spring game. “You don’t become a leader overnight. For some people it comes more naturally, so I’m becoming more vocal and helping out some of the running backs and branching out from there.

“It’s not really natural for me, I’m more of a quiet, keep-to-myself guy. But if you can help other people, why not?”

Oregon’s next starting quarterback, whether it’s junior Jeff Lockie or incoming graduate transfer Vernon Adams, will need all the help he can get following in Mariota’s cavernous footsteps.

During spring practices, Freeman and Thomas Tyner got some reps in the slot as receivers in an effort to get both of the dynamic running backs on the field at the same time.

Oregon led the Pac-12 in rushing in 2014, averaging 234.5 yards per game with 42 touchdowns. Tyner, despite struggling with injuries late in the season, added 573 yards and five touchdowns to Freeman’s fantasy numbers.

Speedy redshirt freshman Tony James, veteran backup Kani Benoit and touted true freshman Taj Griffin add incredible depth in the backfield.

The Ducks also have what could prove to be the deepest and most talented receiving corps in program history with the return of Bralon Addison, Byron Marshall, Dwayne Stanford, Devon Allen and Darren Carrington.

Helfrich describes left tackle Tyler Johnstone as a “fantastic leader” on the offensive line and said Lockie has “been a rock” leading the offense into the post-Mariota era.

Defensively, Hardrick, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci have taken the leadership baton from graduated seniors like Derrick Malone, Tony Washington and Erick Dargan.

Helfrich would love for the players to roll with Royce until the coaches gather the team for fall camp Aug. 10.

“Royce is a fantastic guy, he’s just a great dude,” Helfrich said. “You take away his brilliance on the field, but off the field he’s everything you want. He comes from a great family, great kid, all that stuff. My simple conversation with him a lot of times is, ‘Would this guy be better if he was more like you?’ And he kind of thinks about it for a second, ‘Yeah.’

“He has a ton of credibility. It’s just eliciting more out of other guys, and they’ll respond.”

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich knows he can't force players to be leaders, but he does provde encouragement where necessary. AP PHOTO