By Ed McGranahan.
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Dalton Freeman reached a crossroad in January, facing the choice to enter the NFL Draft or return for one more football season at Clemson University.
Still in the emotional shadow of the Orange Bowl, he examined his options pragmatically and came to a decision critical to Clemson’s season.
Two contributing factors were the decisions by Wisconsin center Peter Konz to enter the draft after his junior season, and running back Andre Ellington’s to return to Clemson. Coupled with the promise of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, Freeman decided a professional football career could wait one more year. The tug to give it one more shot at Clemson was too strong to ignore.
“Once I saw Konz come out I knew it was in my best interest to come back,” Freeman said this week at the ACC Kickoff. Projected as a fourth-round pick this year by NFL scouts, Freeman figured his chances of being one of the top centers selected in 2013 improved.
“I knew the sky was the limit for Clemson. It was the first year for Tajh and Sammy and those guys. When I spoke with Andre, we both were really excited,” he said. “We were both ready to be seniors, both ready to be leaders and ready to take the team to another level.”
Freeman explained his thoughts and reflected on a Clemson career stat began with a lurch and survived a few hazards.
“I don’t know how people do it without faith. You have to remain unbelievably humble and grounded,” he said. “The Lord definitely put me in the right place.”
Freeman played for his father in Pelion, S.C., where he was recruited by many of the nation’s top programs. He chose Clemson after Tommy Bowden signed a seven-year extension in 2007. Six games into Freeman’s redshirt season, Bowden was gone.
“You never know in college football,” he said. “You look at some of the other schools that recruited me have gone through it. Florida State has been through it. Penn State – obviously – has gone through it. Tennessee has been through a couple. There are no guarantees in college football.”
Freeman believes it was worth another roll of the dice to come back. Periodically during the conversation he toyed with the size 15 ring on his right hand, a reward for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Though Florida State was the media favorite Monday to win the conference title, Freeman knows there are teams eager to bring Clemson down a peg.
“Quite frankly, we’re the champion until somebody takes it away from us, and we’re not going to give it away very easily,” Freeman said. “We came to Clemson to play for championships. I’ve played in two ACC Championships and won one. I’d like to play in three, win two then go on to win something else.”
Only left tackle Brandon Thomas has appreciable playing time, so shepherding the pups that will be Clemson’s future will fall largely to Freeman, who played nearly 99 percent of Clemson’s 1,000 offensive snaps last season.
“We’ve got to develop some depth,” he said. “That’s kind of an area of concern going into this camp. We have the talent. We have the potential, but the experience isn’t quite there.
“I’m looking forward to kind of taking a step back and helping these younger guys in this leadership role.”
Freeman said the group seems to mirror the energy and determination he brings to the table.
“It’s hard to think about me coming in five years ago and me being the baby, and now I’m the grandpa of the team,” he said. “But the guys respect me and I respect them. We all have the same goal. We all want to be champions.
“They respect that I’ve been there and I’ve done that. “
Other than the inexperience, the next most critical concern is blending the pieces into a unit. Line coach Robbie Caldwell hopes to identify six or seven others to blend with Freeman and Thomas, but the tightest bond needs to be with the five playing together the most.
“It’s going to be challenging obviously with only two returning starters and a guard going out to tackle, moving a nose guard over to play right guard then filling in two new spots,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to get that cohesiveness right off the bat.
“We had a great winter and great spring, but teams are really built in the summer, and we’ve done a good job at 5 a.m. workouts five days a week. A lot of camaraderie is built there, so we’re excited about the possibilities.”