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Nov. 24, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Several descriptions apply to Dalton Freeman when he’s on the football field.
Linchpin, anchor, cog – those fit his role as Clemson’s starting center.
Off the field? His sense of humor comes through in a blog he writes and sometimes calls “Free-Bird’s Philosophy.” More about that shortly.
What’s on his mind now is preparing for the Tigers’ annual clash with South Carolina. Like Georgia Tech-Georgia and Florida State-Florida, it’s the last game of the regular season and the one each school’s fans want to win above all others.
“It just kind of gets in your blood,” Freeman said, “and there’s a buzz around campus all week and kind of all year for the bragging rights and everything else. It’s definitely a big deal.”
The fact that it’s a night game in Death Valley adds to the passion. Freeman would rather play a home game at night than at noon or 3:30.
“I feel like we always play better at night,” he said. “The atmosphere is so electric and it’s so much louder and it’s everything you could ask for. That’s why everybody came here, to play in front of crowds like this. It gets our motors running.”
Freeman dismissed the notion that Clemson might be catching its biggest rival at a good time. The Gamecocks will be playing in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game next week.
“We were in this situation last year (having clinched a spot in the ACC championship game), and I know we didn’t take the South Carolina game lightly at all,” he said. “We didn’t look ahead whatsoever; our focus was 100 percent on South Carolina.
“As much as this game means to the state and to the players, I don’t think they’ll be looking ahead at all. They’re playing some of the best football they’ve played around there in a long time. I think it’s going to take our best effort (to win).”
Although Freeman said the players and fans are disappointed in the Tigers’ 6-5 record, their offensive line has been one of the team strengths. Four of five starters on the interior returned from last season.
“We really have an experienced group up front that’s been in the heat of battle, that’s been in every situation, so I feel like we’ve always been that rock,” Freeman said. “We’ve prided ourselves on being solid each and every week and just doing our job.”
Freeman, a third-year sophomore, is what coach Dabo Swinney calls “the cog in the wheel.”
“He's really performing well,” Swinney said. “He makes all the calls and just does a great job of quarterbacking that offensive line. He really is what you're looking for in your center. He's very smart, very athletic. He'll give you everything he's got. I’m awful proud of the season that Dalton has had. All of our communication is inside out, so it all starts with him.”
Seemingly every college center was recruited at another position and Freeman is no exception. He came to the Tigers from Pelion, S.C., about 20 minutes outside of Columbia, as a highly recruited guard who chose Clemson from about 30 offers.
During his redshirt season, he was moved to center. Swinney said Freeman’s first-step quickness and ability to snap the ball were factors in the decision for him to change positions.
“I tell you what,” Swinney said, “he absolutely understands the game and does a great job making adjustments and getting everybody else on the same page. In our system, he quarterbacks that offensive line. You've got to have a guy like him. I’m glad we've got him for two more years.”
Freeman became a starter the fifth game of his redshirt freshman season, Clemson’s first freshman starter at that position since 1943.
“I’ve really grown into my role and I’m loving every minute of it,” he said.” I’m able to play a lot faster than I was last year because I’m not having to think as much. Being the center you have to make all the (blocking) calls and know all the defenses and set the protections.
“This year we’re all on the same page. I’m not having to make as many calls because our guys know what to do. That takes a little bit of the pressure off me. It’s kind of fun to be the anchor that holds this thing together.”
Freeman’s father has been a big influence in his life. Ben Freeman played at Wake Forest from 1978-81 – he, too, was recruited as a guard and moved to center – and later coached his son in high school.
“We spent a lot of time together, we rode to school together, we would talk over dinner and after dinner, we were constantly talking about football,” Dalton Freeman said of his father. “He’s the reason I am who I am today and I owe everything to him. His knowledge and his experience is something you can’t replace.”
Ben Freeman never tried to sway his son during the recruiting process, urging him only to make the best decision for himself. Dalton Freeman visited several campuses but said he knew he had found home when he got to Clemson.
Freeman’s first start last season came against his father’s alma mater. And last week the Tigers played at Wake Forest, dispatching the Deacons 30-10.
“I knew he was going to be there with some of his old teammates,” Freeman said. “It was really sentimental for me to look up in the stands and know that he was sitting there cheering me on (wearing) all his orange.”
Freeman devoted an entire blog to how his father is his hero and role model. It was one of the serious turns in the season-long effort on FOX Sports South. Wake Forest guard Michael Hoag and Florida State punter Shawn Powell are other ACC bloggers. (Check it out at this link: http://www.foxsportssouth.com/pages/accfootblog.)
As a communications major, Freeman jumped at the blogging opportunity when approached by Clemson Sports Information Director Tim Bourret.
“I thought I could give some insight and some inside information and at the same time make it light and a fun read for the average fan,” Freeman said. “It’s something I’ve really had a lot of fun with it.”
“Free-Bird’s Philosophy” grew out of the nickname teammates have given him, a play on his last name. Subject matter is wide open and Freeman said he likes to change it up a little each week so fans don’t get another rehash of the game just played.
“A blog is something interesting that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said, “except from a player’s point of view.”
Here’s his take on stepping into a puddle of water in the bathroom of his room on the road:
“Now, I don’t know about you, but I would rather get punched in the face by Mike Tyson than experience wearing a wet sock. To make matters worse, I soon found out the toilet had overflowed …. Actually, I made that part up. It was water from the shower. But nonetheless, I maintain my determined spirit! For I don’t have to wake up until 9:30 AM!”
Teammates, equipment managers and trainers read the blog, Freeman said, and remark on how much they laugh and enjoy it.
“I don’t think any of the coaches have read it,” Freeman said, “and I’m not complaining. I don’t know how that would go over.”
In fact, when asked about the blog, Swinney said he didn’t know about it.
“Anything I need to know? Anything I need to be nervous about?” the coach asked. “He’s an aspiring writer, that’s good to know. I told you he was a smart guy.”
(No need to worry, coach. The blog is edited by Bourret before being submitted.)
The fun he has being “Free-Bird” changes when Freeman steps on the field.
“You want to play your best game every week,” he said, “especially this weekend in front of the home crowd against South Carolina and this kind of environment. I think everybody is going to be pumped up and ready to play and really what it boils down to is trying to gain momentum for next year. Right now it’s all about trying to make the best of it and the way we do that is take care of business and let this be a springboard to next year.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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