The game film left Eltoro Freeman mystified.
The Auburn linebacker didn’t recognize the impostor wearing the No. 21 jersey, the uptight one fearful of making a mistake, lacking the confidence and bravado that had served him so well all his life.
“I’d say, ‘That’s not me at all,’” Freeman said. “I can’t even explain it. Things just weren’t clicking for me.”
All Freeman had heard since transferring to Auburn from junior college was that he’d be a star, a fact he never doubted until the season began and the sophomore struggled through a rash of injuries, inconsistent play and personal issues that left him lost.
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“I felt like I was letting myself down, my fans down, my teammates down,” Freeman said. “They were really looking forward to me coming in and making an impact and I felt like I wasn’t doing that. That was just really frustrating for me.”
He needed a break, so Auburn gave him one. Coach Gene Chizik told Freeman not travel to Arkansas earlier this month, get his head straight and personal affairs in order, then return a new man.
So far it’s looked like a solid plan. Freeman came back with a purpose against LSU last Saturday, leading the team with 12 tackles, two tackles for a loss and one sack. He crushed LSU’s Jordan Jefferson on one play, knocking the quarterback out of the game. It was merely a flash of the burst and power that had tantalized coaches all spring.
“Crazy. Shocking,” Coleman said. “He’s a real Auburn man — that’s how he fights back and comes back and has an outstanding game like he did. … I told him to just let it loose when you get out there on the field to play. I take my hat off to him. He played an outstanding game.”
Injuries & issues
Everybody knew Freeman’s potential. The Alexander City, Ala., native enrolled at Auburn last winter after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and quickly established himself as a projected starter by the end of spring.
But in August, it unraveled. Freeman battled wrist and hamstring injuries, limited in what he could do during practice. He started three of the first five games, but the defense was a maze to him. Assignments clogged his head and he became slow to react on the field.
He started at Tennessee but watched Wildcat quarterback Nu’Keese Richardson slip through his hands on a tackle, breaking off a 41-yard run on the game’s first play. Freeman barely played the rest of the night. He stood by himself on the sidelines while the rest of the defense huddled up with coaches.
It was merely a prelude to the next week, when Freeman didn’t travel to Arkansas, instead trying to find some clarity.
Two former Auburn linebackers — Travis Williams and Takeo Spikes — helped his cause. Williams, an Auburn graduate assistant who was an All-SEC linebacker on the undefeated 2004 team, took Freeman under his wing, calling him daily, checking up on his school work, watching film with him day and night.
“He’s told me: Toro, you’ve got it all. Speed. Strength. Fast,” Freeman said. “You know what you’re doing, you just have to relax more and play your game.”
Spikes, a 12-year NFL veteran now playing for the San Francisco 49ers, connected with Freeman through the sophomore’s academic adviser. The two had a long talk. The crux of the message? “Just go out there and be yourself,” Freeman said. “Don’t worry about anything.”
It’s been sage advice. Freeman apologized to the team for his earlier troubles, then went back to work, giving Auburn’s thin linebacking corps a boost.
Throughout all of his ordeals, Freeman never thought about calling it quits.
“I didn’t even think about leaving,” he said. “The program’s too great to leave.”