AUBURN, Ala. -- Worked into his usual bundle of energy, Auburn linebacker Eltoro Freeman released it with a slight miscalculation last Friday, whiffing on a first-half tackle of Alabama’s Greg McElroy as the quarterback scampered for a first down.
His head hung low, Freeman trudged back to the sideline, fully expecting to hear an earful from the coaches.
Instead, defensive coordinator Ted Roof was reassuring, telling the linebacker it was OK and to get back in the game.
“To hear him say that made my confidence level just shoot up,” Freeman said. “It was just unbelievable. When I went back out there, dawg, I just played free. … I could just play football now. I didn’t have to be on pins, needles, anything.”
He responded with his best game this year, finishing with nine tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack in Auburn’s 28-27 win, a comeback about as improbable as Freeman’s.
The junior’s enigmatic career followed its up-and-down course this season. Expected to be a big contributor, Freeman started the first two games, making 15 tackles.
Just like last year, though, he practically disappeared the next nine weeks, shelved for two games with what coaches called bumps and bruises and making only brief showings against subpar competition. He had 11 tackles against Louisiana-Monroe and Tennessee-Chattanooga but none in the other five games in which he was in uniform.
Confidence remains a battle.
“I’m so hard on myself,” Freeman said. “And I just want the coaches’ trust so bad. When I do get my opportunity, I go out there. I’m just really trying to play hard and just be able to stay on the field, make plays. But, by doing that, sometimes I may overrun the play, or I may be too aggressive or whatever.”
He continued to plug away, though. Freeman has had no shortage of mentors at Auburn -- from Roof to graduate assistant coach Travis Williams to linebacker Josh Bynes -- but he kept his head straight and confidence up this time, thanks to another person: his older brother, Charlie.
Eltoro is the youngest of the Freeman brothers. Rome Jr., a real estate investor who lives in Alexander City, is the middle brother.
“He didn’t get to play,” Eltoro said. “He didn’t have the size or nothing like me. But he sure did have the drive. He put everything in me. … He’s taught me everything I know.”
That includes perseverance. After weeks of inactivity, it paid off. Freeman earned the start at weak-side linebacker against Alabama with a strong showing in practice.
“He had earned that,” said Roof, who said Freeman or sophomore Daren Bates could start at outside linebacker Saturday. “As coaches, we want to reward performance, and he had performed well and earned that. So that’s what we did.”
Freeman’s performance against the Crimson Tide rivaled his rise from the ashes a year ago, when he returned after sorting out personal issues and made 12 tackles in a lopsided loss to LSU.
The Alabama game had a happier ending. Freeman was practically in tears during a postgame TV interview, making sure he thanked Charlie, a soundbite that has made the rounds on the Internet.
“That’s all I could think about,” Eltoro said. “I’m an emotional person. The whole year, man, he was just like, ‘Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be all right.’ To be able to be an impact at that game, Alabama? Phewwww. It was just unbelievable.”