War Eagle Extra

Loyalty pays off for Auburn's Eltoro Freeman

AUBURN, Ala. — Eltoro Freeman locked his hips into a rigid pose as he crouched, prepared to shuffle under a low-hanging tarp and over a few strategically placed speed bumps during a linebackers drill last week.

The scene caught Ted Roof’s eye.

The Auburn defensive coordinator wanted his new pupil to be loose in the hips, demonstrating it himself by shimmying side-to-side for a few seconds before Freeman joined in and Roof flashed a grin.

Properly relaxed, Freeman shot through the drill, staying low while gliding over the mats, emerging on the other side and meeting a tackling pad with a strong swipe of his arm as Roof shouted, “Better! Better!”

It’s all part of the learning process for Freeman, who is finally at Auburn after playing a year and redshirting another while at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. The sophomore is eager to make up for lost time.

“The first day I got out there, man, I was just going full speed,” Freeman said. “I wasn’t understanding everything, but I was just doing every drill at full speed. (Linebacker) Josh Bynes was just telling me, ‘Just slow down. I know you’re eager to get out here, but just slow down so you can learn this and that.’ … I’m getting better.”

Freeman, who backs up Craig Stevens at strong-side linebacker, qualifies as one of the more intriguing players on the Tigers’ roster this spring. Although short by linebacker standards (5-foot-11), the 222-pounder moves quickly and packs a punch, teammates and coaches have said, as if the size of his massive biceps didn’t provide ample evidence.

“He kind of reminds me of Tray Blackmon,” Stevens said, referring to the LaGrange product and Tigers’ former bruiser at linebacker. “You know, he goes hard every play. He’s energized. I think once he calms down and focuses on the plays that he’s got, he’ll be a good player.”

Freeman rarely holds anything back on the field, physically or emotionally.

“He’s fired up every day,” Bynes said. “He said, ‘That’s how I am.’ I say, ‘I ain’t going to knock your hustle down.’ Any way you got to have a good day at practice, you do it. No matter if you’ve got to do backflips out here or something.”

You can hardly blame Freeman for his exuberance. He signed with the Tigers in 2007 out of Benjamin Russell High in Alexander City, Ala., but did not qualify academically. He instead enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast, helping the Bulldogs to a National Junior College Athletic Association co-national championship his first year. He redshirted last season to maintain three years of eligibility after he arrived at Auburn.

Loyalty is high on Freeman’s list of virtues. Since his ninth-grade year, he has worn No. 21, the jersey number of his older first cousin, Onterio Harrell, a football standout who died of cancer at the age of 24.

Despite Auburn’s struggles last season — and subsequent coaching change — Freeman never questioned his commitment to the Tigers.

“When I signed with Auburn University in 2007, I didn’t sign with no coaches,” Freeman said. “(Tommy) Tuberville wasn’t on my scholarship; coach (James) Willis wasn’t on my scholarship. Auburn University was on my scholarship. When I didn’t qualify, Auburn, they didn’t drop me, they still kept in contact, they still kept on encouraging me.

“When Auburn had a down season, I sat back and thought about that: They were with me when I was down, so I decided to stick with them when they were down.”

Both sides hope that loyalty pays off. Already, Freeman has made an impression in a shallow Auburn linebacker pool in need of a few more athletic playmakers.

“He doesn’t seem like a newcomer at all,” Bynes said. “He’s fit in perfect.”