Freeman Thriving In Solo Role

As is often the case at Ohio State, two talented players split time at one position until one went down with an injury. Now with a firm grasp on the No. 1 weakside linebacker spot, junior Marcus Freeman is starting to emerge as one of the team's top playmakers.

Marcus Freeman might have a few things in common with Lou Gehrig when all is said and done.

With three games remaining in the 2007 regular season, the junior linebacker for the Buckeyes is playing arguably the best football of his career. Under the lights in a nationally televised game against Penn State, Freeman racked up a season-high 14 tackles and was named the team's defensive player of the week.

Although Freeman has started all nine games this season and is just four tackles behind defending Bronco Nagurski winner James Laurinaitis this season, things did not really take off for him until another player went down with an injury.

After splitting reps with sophomore Ross Homan, Freeman became the team's primary weakside linebacker after Homan went down following the team's 33-14 victory over Washington in week three.

Freeman had just three tackles the following week against Northwestern, but came up with 11 against Minnesota in week five.

Coincidence? Hardly.

"Any time you're on the field and continue to play and play, it's a good thing," Freeman said. "I think your confidence builds up, (and) when you play with confidence, you play better defense."

Freeman started 11 games last year and entered preseason camp as the No. 1 weakside linebacker, but by the time Ohio State began its season against Youngstown State on Sept. 1, Freeman had been told the two would be liberally substituting for each other.

"Coach (Luke) Fickell said, ‘Hey, Ross go in a couple of plays, Ross go in a couple of plays,' so you see, ‘OK, we're starting to rotate a little bit, I don't know if it's for this practice,' " Freeman said. "As practice went on we continued to rotate and going into the game week I knew we were going to be rotating.

"I think your confidence goes down a bit because you're like, ‘Man, I'm not doing something that I need to be doing.' I remember Coach Fickell saying, 'We expect more. You should be doing more.'"

Fickell, the team's linebackers coach, said the decision was made partially to take advantage of the talents of both players, but also to help keep them fresh through the season.

"Right now they're splitting every other series," Fickell said as the team was preparing to face Akron in week two. "As much as we can, we're just rolling through with that and just getting both of them as many reps as we can. Not really for any reason who's starting, who's not starting, but knowing that we're going to need both of them throughout the year."

At the time, Fickell said the situation could last all season. However, as soon as Homan suffered his toe injury, the spot became Freeman's.

He appears to have taken full advantage.

"I knew from the Northwestern game on, Coach would say I had to step up," he said. "I stepped up and made a couple more plays. As that goes, your confidence goes."

In Freeman's team-leading performance against the Nittany Lions, Laurinaitis was held to a season-low two tackles. The game might have been the first step toward Freeman establishing himself as a standout linebacker in his own right.

"Marcus played a great game, and he's done that a few times this year," said Laurinaitis, who added that he senses Freeman is playing with more confidence. "He played a great game, and it's good to see him playing well."

Laurinaitis said the two games he has felt the other team keying on him most have been against PSU and Purdue, where he limited to five tackles. In those contests, Freeman has had seven and 14 tackles, respectively.

It almost adds up to a Batman and Robin situation, with Freeman serving as Laurinaitis' sidekick.

"We love to compete, and we compete extremely hard," Laurinaitis said. "I wouldn't say that I'm Batman and he's Robin, though, because there are a lot of good things that he does. It's more like a tag-team, if you want to look at it in wrestling terms. We're equal tag-team partners."

But lost in all the shuffle is Homan, whose exact timetable to return remains uncertain. Freeman said he has seen the sophomore in a walking boot, while Laurinaitis said Homan is still actively involved in all the team's activities and meetings off the field.

The team even finds ways to poke some fun at Homan.

"We make fun of him because his boot kind of squeaks sometimes when he walks, but that's it," Freeman said.

While OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said Homan figures prominently into the equation for the rest of the season upon his return, Freeman's play as of late might make it tough for him to crack back into the lineup.

"Ross is a great football player, and who knows, if he wasn't hurt we might still be rotating," Freeman said. "But you can't help what happened, and when the opportunity presents itself you just have to step up and make plays. As we keep winning, as we keep playing, I definitely get more and more comfortable."

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