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Royce Freeman intends to return to Oregon for senior season

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Oregon running back Royce Freeman intends to return to college for his senior season rather than applying for entry into the 2017 NFL Draft as an underclassman.

Freeman expressed excitement to play for new UO coach Willie Taggart in a statement released on Oregon's website.

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"After consulting with my family and giving this considerable thought, I feel this is the best decision for me in regards to my future on and off the field," Freeman stated. "My education was one of the most important reasons I chose to come to Oregon and that priority hasn't changed. I wish to thank (former) coach (Mark) Helfrich and the entire coaching staff for the roles they have played in my success thus far. ... However, the prospect of playing for coach Taggart my final year here was certainly a factor in my return. His enthusiasm and vision for this program are contagious. I am excited to be coached by him and to enhance my development."

Just as Oregon's 4-8 season was a disappointment, Freeman's was less of a success than expected, as well. After rushing for 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2015, his production was nearly cut in half this year (945 yards, nine TDs). Contributing to that decline was a leg injury he suffered against Nebraska, and a bruised sternum from the Washington game, along with a less effective offensive line. The leg injury sidelined him for a Week 4 game against Colorado. Nevertheless, Washington coach Jimmy Lake predicted that Freeman would be the first running back selected in the draft. The 2017 draft class is expected to be a deep one at the running back position.

Underclassmen have until a Jan. 16 deadline to apply for early draft eligibility.

Freeman (6-feet, 230 pounds) is a powerful rusher with impressive receiving skills. In his best game of the season, the week before injuring his leg against Nebraska, Freeman exploded for 207 yards on 21 carries against Virginia. An NFC scout told NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks that Freeman compares favorably to Carolina Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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