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Freeman nears James’ rushing record

EUGENE — Not many players have been able to catch LaMichael James from behind.

It is taking longer than originally planned for Royce Freeman, but Oregon’s star running back has a chance to run down James’ career rushing record against UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

Freeman needs 140 yards to eclipse the 5,082 rushing yards James accumulated with the Ducks in Chip Kelly’s offense during three electrifying seasons (2009-11).

The Bruins’ defense ranks 128th in rushing defense (313 yards per game) out of 129 FBS teams.

“It’s definitely an after-the-season sort of thing, just congratulate everyone that’s helped me get to that point,” Freeman said when asked if he would celebrate becoming Oregon’s all-time leading rusher. “It’s something, if I do reach that benchmark, that I’ll be grateful for.”

Freeman finished with 945 yards and nine touchdowns — subpar statistics by his lofty standards — during an injury-plagued 2016 campaign.

After weighing the pros and cons of entering the NFL draft, Freeman decided to return for his senior season to play for coach Willie Taggart and running backs coach Donte Pimpleton.

Taggart coached Heisman Trophy runner up Toby Gerhart at Stanford.

Marlon Mack, South Florida’s star running back last season, was a fourth-round pick who is being groomed by the Indianapolis Colts to replace Frank Gore.

In Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense, Freeman has rushed for 797 yards and 10 touchdowns in six games this season.

During last week’s 49-7 loss at Stanford, Freeman was a bright spot on a sputtering offense with 143 yards rushing.

“Just the way the season is going we’re just focused on getting back on track,” Freeman said. “We’ve got to get focused on doing the little things and just improving, putting a better performance out there on Saturdays.”

Freeman is currently tied with James for the Oregon record for most 100-yard games (26) and needs 133 yards to break James’ record for all-purpose yards (5,869).

As a sophomore in 2015, Freeman broke James’ single-season rushing record with 1,836 yards and earned All-American honors.

Freeman was the featured back in 2014 as a true freshman, helping the Ducks get to the inaugural College Football Playoff title game with 1,365 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

“I just count my blessings,” said Freeman, whose next touchdown will give him the school record for total touchdowns (59). “Durability plays a huge part in that, and the fact that I’ve been able to be durable for that amount of time will be a great thing.

“Just the trainers keeping me healthy and putting me back together during this time has been amazing.”

BURMEISTER TO START: Justin Herbert is back on the field as a very limited practice participant and Taylor Alie is listed first at quarterback on Oregon’s alphabetical depth chart.

But coach Willie Taggart said before Wednesday’s practice that Braxton Burmeister will start for the Ducks against UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

The true freshman has struggled in two starts since Herbert suffered a fractured collarbone. Burmeister threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles during consecutive losses to Washington State and Stanford.

“We’re not asking him to be Tom Brady or anybody,” Taggart said. “I wish he was. But we just need him to run our offense and more importantly just take care of the football.

“If there’s one thing I would like for Braxton to do it’s take care of the football. And everything else will take care of itself.”

Burmeister has completed 19 of 36 passes (52.8 percent) for 172 yards with a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown since burning his redshirt in the fourth quarter against California.

Alie will be available off the bench again after completing 2 of 5 passes for 10 yards against Stanford with the 49-7 loss already cemented.

Oregon's Royce Freeman (21) takes the ball around left end against Stanford during the third quarter Saturday. [D. ROSS CAMERON/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]