Linebacker was lost at times, confused by his assignments and consumed by trying to do too much after junior college transfer
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — Perhaps the hype was too much, the anticipation too great, the expectations too high.
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Linebacker Eltoro Freeman, an instant fan favorite for his energetic comments, massive biceps and catchy nickname (“The Bull”), was pegged for greatness before he ever stepped onto the Plains.
So when success didn’t come instantly, he slipped into a spiral of self doubt that derailed most of his season.
No, 2009 didn’t go exactly as Freeman planned, but he wouldn’t change it one bit.
“I don’t think it was a lost year,” he said. “I learned a lot from the ’09 year, mentally, how to handle things. … If I could change ’09, I wouldn’t. I would want it to be the way that it happened. I think that made me the person and the player that I am today.”
Meet Eltoro, version 2.0. Armed with a new attitude and more realistic expectations as a backup to senior Craig Stevens, Freeman is ready for a fresh start.
“I realized it’s not about me, it’s about the team,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I get 10 tackles or no tackles, as long as we’re winning and I’m doing my assignments right.”
It’s a far cry from last season. Freeman, who arrived from Mississippi Gulf Coast in the spring of 2009, stood out in a shallow linebacker pool and was quickly penciled in as a starter on the strong side.
But playing in the SEC required more than just physical gifts. Freeman was lost at times, confused by his assignments and consumed by trying to do too much.
He started at Tennessee but missed a tackle on wildcat quarterback Nu’Keese Richardson, who broke off a 41-yard run on the game’s first play. Freeman sat out the rest of the game.
“They could see the frustration,” Freeman said. “Coaches were always just talking about, ’Toro, it’s OK, just calm down. You can live to play another day.’ If I’d mess up on one assignment in a game or whatever, I’m like, ‘Aw, man, I blew it.’”
The low point came the next week. Auburn traveled to Arkansas, but coaches told Freeman to stay home.
“I don’t miss games, not unless you’re injured or whatever,” Freeman said. “I felt like I was on the wrong track.”
Around that time, graduate assistant Travis Williams, an All-SEC linebacker on the undefeated 2004 team, took Freeman under his wing, giving him one-one-one attention and trying to simplify things.
The results were instantaneous. Freeman made 21 tackles against LSU and Mississippi, only to be sidelined again with a concussion and ankle injury that kept him out of the Iron Bowl and most of the Outback Bowl.
More questions arose in the spring, when Freeman worked as a backup at middle linebacker to Josh Bynes. Coaches gave vague answers about the junior’s progress. At one point, head coach Gene Chizik said Freeman had to “step it up.”
But Freeman appears to be in good standing now, motivated by the increased competition created by four freshman linebackers — LaDarius Owens, Jake Holland, Jessel Curry and Jawara White.
“He’s working, he’s focused, he’s probably stayed healthier up to this point than he’s been in the past,” Chizik said. “It’s time for him to step up and play football.”
Freeman’s health became an issue again when he hurt his foot in Wednesday’s practice. He wore a boot at practice Thursday.
“It’s like this: ’Toro is a good player,” Stevens said. “In high school, he was used to just running around or whatever. We have a structured system here. I think he’s better now because he knows the plays. … I think last year was a matter of breaking him in, getting him to see that running around isn’t enough.”
There’s less pressure this time. With converted safety Daren Bates expected to start on the strong side, Freeman moved back to his original position on the weak side, behind Stevens, an All-SEC candidate who rarely comes off the field.
“I’m not into who’s going first or who’s going second; I’m not into all that,” Freeman said. “I’m just into trying to help my team win and trying to get better with my assignments and just go out there and play ball.”
How hungry is he to prove himself?
“I’m starvin’,” Freeman said.