Tony Brooks-James knows what question is coming.
As the backup to Royce Freeman for the past three seasons, Brooks-James never had 20 carries in a game or more than 101 in a season. The speedy 185-pounder has been known more for his versatility than durability.
Now he heads into his final season with the Ducks as the logical replacement for Freeman — who averaged 18.6 carries per game during the past four seasons — but not certain to get that type of workload.
“Am I ready for it?,” Brooks-James said Tuesday when asked about becoming the featured running back in Oregon’s offense. “Yes, I’m ready for it. I would love that.”
Brooks-James has run for 1,557 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards on 226 carries with the Ducks. He gave Oregon a different look than the 239-pound Freeman when he lined up in the backfield.
Now Brooks-James is looking to shed the label as a “change-of-pace back” and embrace his one shot at becoming the starting running back for a program that has had a 1,000-yard rusher in 10 of the past 11 seasons.
“We’re about to find that out,” new Oregon running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “We are trying to push him into that role. Right now he is doing a lot of things well, so we will see how it plays out.”
The 5-foot-9 Brooks-James is listed as 10 pounds heavier than last season and has a plan with strength coach Aaron Feld to add at least one pound each week. That would get him around 195 pounds heading into fall camp.
“He’s bulked up and believe it or not, got even faster,” Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert said. “He’s done a great job. He’s a guy we can count on.”
The only other experienced running back on the roster is senior Taj Griffin, who is back at that position after spending much of last season at wide receiver. Griffin has 848 yards on 132 yards in his career as another of those speedy options with limited use behind Freeman.
“Consistency,” Mastro said of Griffin. “He’s got to be able to show he can do it. I don’t want a one-hit wonder. In this offense, we want a guy who can keep coming and coming and coming. We don’t want to send someone into the game and the defense knows what is coming.”
The remainder of Oregon’s depth chart at running back features members of the past two recruiting classes with only sophomore Darrian Felix having game experience from last year when he ran 30 times for 182 yards.
CJ Verdell and Cyrus Habibi-Likio each redshirted last season while true freshmen Travis Dye and Jamal Elliott enrolled in time for spring practices.
Verdell is Oregon’s biggest back at 6-1 and 202 pounds. As a group, the running backs average 5-10 and 190 pounds.
“Our backs are smaller, but we demand the same type of physicality,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “You still have to block, still have to fill the ‘A’ gap and take on a Mike linebacker at 230 pounds running at full sprint.
“They have to be able to protect and maintain their leverage and anchor down at the line of scrimmage. Is that a challenge for them? Some of it is, but the flip side is if you miss on them, they are gone. They might be a little smaller and the power is not quite what the other guys had, but they are elusive.”
It is likely that every Oregon running back will get more carries this season than they had in any previous year.
“They’ve got to be durable,” Mastro said. “I am not really worried about height as much as we have to get their weight to where we want it. They are going to have to play hard.
“ ... There is not really a guy who has separated himself yet which is good because they are all doing good things. Eventually, you hope one or two of them separate themselves heading into fall camp.”
While Freeman was Oregon’s lead back when healthy during the past four years, Oregon’s rotation in the backfield could be similar to 2013. Byron Marshall led the way that season with 168 carries for 1,038 yards while Thomas Tyner ran 115 times for 711 yards and De’Anthony Thomas had 96 rushes for 594 yards.
Whether Oregon has a running back who regularly gets 15 to 20 carries a game or relies on a committee is yet to be determined.
“I tell those guys all the time that they make those decisions by what they put on tape,” Cristobal said. “I’d love to have (a lead back), but at the same time the backs we have are not real big guys, but they are effective. You can sub them and use four or five as you would one or two. It is not a concern, it is a bonus in that aspect.
“At some time, guys have to separate through their play and through the way they are consistent in their mental standpoint. We expect them to take that jump. The competition has been fierce and it has only made that group better.”