Freeman makes most of opportunity

Dalton Freeman

CLEMSON — It was just a small crack in the door, but freshman Dalton Freeman saw it and ran though it as fast as he could before it closed.

Of course that door is the center position on Clemson's football team and with first-team center Mason Cloy missing part of last Saturday's scrimmage due to an academic conflict, Freeman, a freshman from Pelion, jumped at the opportunity to work with the first team.

"That was good for him," Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier said.

It didn't hurt that Freeman was productive either. The offense didn't miss a beat with Cloy out as the offensive line led the way for a 200-yard day from the Clemson running backs.

"It was a wonderful opportunity for me to let my presence be felt in there and show them I can be a one and not just a two," Freeman said. "Looking back at the film, I played pretty well. I still have a lot of work to do and a lot of that will come with experience, but right now I feel pretty good about competing for the starting job."

And that should make a lot of Clemson fans feel better. One of the things head coach Dabo Swinney preached about last week was finding a second-team center. He said that was a position that caused them a lot of issues last year and took almost three-quarters of the season to get a handle on.

He said one of the team's goals this spring was to make sure they first had two reliable players that could play the center position without a drop off and then have two guys waiting in the wings in case of an emergency.

"I don't want what happened last year to us at center to ever happen again," Swinney said.

Left guard Thomas Austin and right guard Barry Humphries will likely be the emergency center, especially after Freeman proved last Saturday he can be a reliable option as a starter or as a backup.

"Dalton is a smart youngster and understands the game a little bit," guards and center coach Brad Scott said.

That's because Freeman is the son of the one the top high school football coaches in the state of South Carolina – Pelion High School's Ben Freeman. The Panthers' multiple offense, which is run by the elder Freeman, is very similar to what Clemson runs, including the current blocking schemes.

"We did a little bit of everything [in high school]," Dalton Freeman said. "We spread it out and we run it in the I-(formation). We did a little bit of everything… Anytime you go from high school to college, there is going to be a little bit of a difference, but I think my Dad, he was my offensive coordinator, did a little bit of mixing it up and we did a little bit of everything.

"I was well-rounded when I got here."

The only thing Freeman had to adjust to last year was being in the two-point stance instead of the three.

"When I first got here it was a little different and it was starting to grow on me, but at the same time we got blown off the ball a lot and that was because we could not have our weight forward," Freeman said. "That was kind of a Coach (Rob) Spence thing because we were very zone oriented.

"Now we are lining up and we are hitting the defense in the mouth. It felt like it gave us a lot more advantage because our weight was forward and we could just go straight off the ball."

The Tigers started incorporating the three-point stance back in its blocking schemes when Swinney became the interim coach and started calling the plays last October. As a result, the team showed some improvement in the running game, but it was hard to change everything up halfway into the season.

Now Clemson is almost exclusively in the three-point stance and Freeman says he can already tell what a difference it is making in the running game and in everyone's attitude.

"Everything is starting to click," he said. "We really took it personal that the weak link on our team last year was the offensive line. I think a lot of that was due to inexperience because we had like three or four guys that had never played a college snap.

"This year we feel like we have the advantage. They played a lot last year and we have four returning starters and we feel like we have the advantage and we feel like we will be a better team just because of that experience."

As for Freeman, his experiences are growing with every snap, even if it is just on the practice fields.

"Dalton has great leverage with long arms," Scott said. "He gets down on himself a little bit so he has to learn that you are not going to be successful at this level on every snap. He is still learning.

"He does compete well against some of our veteran players and he can be a guard if we need him to be, but he is going to be a very good center for us and we need to start training a good freshman right now and I think Dalton is going to be our guy."

He was that guy on Saturday.

"I graded fairly well. I have a lot of work to do, but I did a lot of things well," Freeman said. "A lot of it I missed wasn't because I didn't get my block down. It was because of sloppy technique or something like that."

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