"We've been coached so well, it's almost like being a quarterback sometimes," the junior tackle said. "And I feel we as an offensive line understand the game better, not just who we're blocking and how to block them."
It's a fact. And if line boss Coach Mike Hevesy is not actually training triggermen these days, he is producing big Dogs with a good grasp of the big offensive picture. Sure, the main job description hasn't changed: whup that assigned guy across the line of scrimmage, give the runner a sliver more room to roam, keep the heat off your passer. Ahhh, but Freeman relates that Coach Dan Mullen is asking much, much more of MSU's muscle men during this training camp.
Take Wednesday night's practice, which centered largely around passing offense and defense. "We've been coached to look at coverages and see how the safeties roll so we can understand what blitz is coming," Freeman said. "Just things like that."
‘Just' things like that? When was the last time a Bulldog tackle talked about picking up clues from a shifting safety? But that is a measure of just how much Mullen is changing the way Mississippi State players see the field. And, see themselves, noted Freeman.
"That's the coaching. It's like Coach tells us. First of all what to do; as soon as you get done with what to do then learn how to do it the right way. The last thing you learn is why. Now we're learning why we do so many different things."
Speaking of doing different things, Freeman has found himself serving double-duty at tackle. Both of them. Having worked the first days of Dog camp as the number-one right tackle, Freeman has moved. "I'm taking reps at left tackle out there, I don't know if y'all know about that." Reporters didn't since practices have been closed to observation. But, all writers and readers knew that injuries on the offensive line had forced some August shuffling of the practice lineups. Including, of particular interest to Freeman and the rest of the tackles, a knee problem for Derek Sherrod.
The starting left tackle has been back at work this week, just not any full-contact. So, "I've been playing it until Derek gets healthy," said Freeman. "But in the drills where he does go, I'm still going first with the right tackles. And I'm still trying to work on my technique and be more consistent."
One would think staying at one spot every practice, every drill, would help consistency. Freeman downplays that idea, since the goal for this line is to have something approaching full inter-changibility of blockers. Especially tackles and guards who are supposed to be able to work the right or left sides of center without missing a beat. Much less a block.
Working out on the left end isn't entirely new for Freeman. "Coach (J.B.) Grimes tried me at left tackle for like a week, but it didn't do very well." For that matter Freeman's first full year out of junior college produced little of note other than a redshirt season…which has proven very much for the best in all aspects. What few realize is that Freeman doesn't turn 20 years of age until August 29; there are true sophomores on this roster older than he. He's always played ‘above' his age and it wasn't an issue until coming to the SEC.
Now, however, Freeman has literally grown-into his position and responsibility. He began camp at 305 pounds, and actually said he's gained a couple of lbs. in August despite the demanding pace of practices. "They keep pouring water and Gatorade in us at every break," he said, attributing the latest gains to hydration. Now that score of pounds added since 2008 is strictly muscle, credited both to natural maturing and an unnaturally-intense strength program instituted by Coach Matt Balis.
The result is a bigger (he actually grew an inch taller over summer, to 6-6) and better blocker for 2009, ready to show why State's previous staff recruited him out of Copiah-Lincoln CC. Freeman was improved in spring camp but he surprised all observers when he opened preseason by splitting first-team snaps with listed #1 Addison Lawrence on day-one; then on the second day was the clear number-one right tackle. It's a status Freeman has successfully held on either end of the line, though soph Lawrence has responded to the challenge by upgrading his own efforts.
As for the promotion, "I got the jitters out," Freeman said. "The speed is kind of slowing-down a little bit. But I still have to keep working on my technique, and I still get beat on mental things sometimes not doing what the coaches said. I've got to be more coachable. But I am getting more comfortable with the first rotation."
Comfortable, just never content with top status. In fact he is his own worst critic after a less-than-perfect practice, which is why Freeman constantly talks of working on technique and consistency.
"I'm the kind of guy that when I do something wrong I just want to rewind, go back in time and do it all over again. In football you have to forget everything as soon as it happens, but when I get done with practice I'm like man, I could have done better on that play even though it happened three hours ago! I just keep thinking about it until I watch film the next day."
If Freeman has things to think about it isn't necessarily a sign of slacking from him or other linemen. Because, after all, the Dogs on the other side of the line aren't exactly accommodating or out there just to help the blockers feel good about themselves. "No, the defense is doing a great job with their pressures, their stunts and stuff," Freeman said. "And they're definitely keeping us thinking on the go.
"There's never a day when they just sit back and play football, if you know what I mean. They've always got something tricky coming at you." But give Freeman credit for doing what an older Dog is supposed to do when presented with new tricks: learn it. Besides, he said, all the defensive treachery faced in practice will be useful in a few weeks.
"After practice is over and we start the season we'll have seen it all. More than once! But the defense is doing great, they're really playing at a high level right now and they've got some good stuff."
By the same token the Bulldog offense is learning and applying some good stuff of their own this camp. The best being a growing sense of self-assurance by everyone involved but most especially on the line. They're far from a finished product and have so much left to prove. But just the experience of the last couple weeks, when two starters went down and shuffling began, has revealed a fresh confidence in the blocking corps.
"Yeah, you don't expect Derek to come out the first week of training camp and get hurt, that really shocked all of us," Freeman explained. "The coaches had a backup plan but me and the guys, when Derek goes down we look at each other and go uh-oh, who's going to play left tackle? But I feel that helped me as a player. Because all summer I've been solely focused on one thing. I worked on left tackle a little but not a lot.
"Now this happens, and I can be more confident going into a game if Derek goes down I can back him up or Addison can back him up. It won't be the first time we've had to deal with it, we won't freak out and the coaches won't freak out, we'll all have confidence and guys on the field that can do it. The coaches are doing a good job of making sure we all are well-rounded to play every position."
And, play in front of a variety of real quarterbacks. Interestingly, Freeman said that blocking attitudes don't have to change now depending on who is under the center and the line is comfortable working with any triggerman. Besides, he added, "Tyson (Lee) and Chris (Relf) both can scramble if they need to. Of course I want to protect them as long as I can, especially little Tyson in there, you don't want him to get hit. But it doesn't matter what quarterback is in there, I know if something bad goes wrong they can kind of make up for it.
"But Tyson is a great leader, he's going to keep us all straightened out and make sure everything is done to a ‘t'. On the other hand Chris is really poised, you rarely see him get emotional. He's always the same guy, not going to yell at you, not going to do much but be calm the whole time. Other than that it's the same, I just try not to let them get hit from behind!"
Spoken like a ‘quarterback' on the line of scrimmage. Certainly Freeman can't wait until he does get to line up and take his first senior college snaps. For that matter every Dog is eager to leave the practice field and get on Scott Field for-real…except there's still so much left to be drilled and polished. Oh, well, he's waited a year longer than planned, so two more weeks won't worry Freeman.
"Right now the coaches are just trying to get us as sharp and executing as well as possible. We're thinking about Jackson State but as far as planning for them we haven't started that yet. I'm ready for it, I can't wait! But we've got twelve practices left and me and the offensive line are going to just keep working on our technique and trying to be the best offensive line we can be. Hopefully when September 5 rolls around we'll be ripping and roaring and ready to go!"