Freeman fitting in on USM O-line

Freeman fitting in on USM O-line

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Let it never be said that Will Freeman is not up for a challenge.

For the past four years, The University of Southern Mississippi senior had made his bones along the defensive line, starting his career at end before sliding over to tackle.

The move inside was short-lived after Freeman broke his leg in the 2015 season-opener against Mississippi State and was sidelined for the rest of the year.

Returning to the field this spring, Freeman was focused on regaining a starting spot on the Golden Eagles' defensive front when first-year head football coach Jay Hopson approached with an offer he thought he could refuse.

"I came off the injury, and was doing good, fighting for a starting spot on the D-line," Freeman said. "Then, coach came up to me and said, 'How would you feel about playing left tackle?' I looked at him like he was insane. I mean, I'd never thought about it, so I'm looking at him, and I say, 'You know what, maybe.' But really, as I'm going away, I'm thinking, 'It's the spring and he's just talking. There's no way.'

"And then they moved me," Freeman said.

At first blush, the flip could be seen as way to boost the offensive line's numbers, particularly on the edge, where the Golden Eagles lost starting tackles Rashod Hill and Norman Price.

But Freeman has been working primarily with the starting offensive unit for the past week. Fellow senior Jacob Fleming, who had come out of the spring atop the depth chart at left tackle, also is in the mix in a position competition that very well could last the preseason.

"You know, there's always battles up front along the offensive line, so there's some battles going there," Hopson said Thursday morning. "There's battles everywhere, really, but that's a spot some guys are rotating around, but I'd say that's the hottest spot right now."

And the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Freeman appears to be more than holding his own.

"We're mixing and matching a little bit," USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "He's been doing good. The kid's talented. I'm not saying I was skeptical of it, but I was a little leery because playing O-line, it takes time. But that kid, he bought in to it and over the course of the summer, he gained weight. He's long, he's athletic and he cares and that's a huge part. The moment Hop presented it to him, he was like, 'Whatever's best for the team,' and that's how that kid is, mentality-wise. I love that kid."

Which is not to say that Freeman has not experienced a little cognitive dissonance from time to time, huddling up with many of the same compadres he spent the past few years lining up across from and hitting.

"It was a rough spring, kind of thrown to the wolves a little bit," Freeman said. "But the offensive line is just so great, a real tight-knit group, and after giving me a little bit of crap about being an ex-defensive lineman, they brought me in and really, really have helped me out. The whole summer's been great."

Freeman has been all about challenges.

An All-State defensive end coming out of Northwest Rankin High School in 2011, the closest Freeman came to the offensive line ­- beyond cracking pads - came early in his freshman season.

"I got moved from defensive end to tight end, until they realized I couldn't catch and moved me back," Freeman said.

After a season-ending injury to former defensive end Daz McCullum in the season opener, Freeman entered the defensive rotation in the second game of the season against East Carolina. He played in 11 games, finishing with 13 tackles, including a sack.

As a sophomore, Freeman appeared in all 12 of USM's games, making four starts. He finished with 14 tackles (seven solo), and blocked a kick in the season finale against UAB, a game the Golden Eagles won to snap a 23-game losing streak.

In 2014, Freeman played in 11 games, including one start, and collected 14 tackles. He also added another blocked kick.

Hopson said preseason plans call for Freeman to see at least a few snaps on defense before the Golden Eagles begin game-week preparations for the Sept. 3 season opener at Kentucky.

"I'm going to get him some shots on the other side, too," USM head football coach Jay Hopson said. "Just kind of getting him to know everything over there (on offensive line) before knocking the dust off the rust (on defense)."

Freeman said he was game for whatever role he could best serve the team.

"It's not the same sense of accomplishment you get as a defensive lineman, but there's nothing I love more than when I make my block, and it's perfect, and I look up and see a perfect ball going right to the receiver," Freeman said. "That's an incredible feeling. We're not going to get all the recognition in the world, and I know that and I'm okay with that. I want to win. I don't care who gets the spotlight. I want to put a ring on my finger, and I know all my teammates do, too."

USM will continue preseason practice Friday morning before holding its first scrimmage of summer at 9 a.m. Saturday.