|Jarrell Freeman, a former
Mary Hardin-Baylor standout who now plays for the Colts, said the
big leagues saw his D-III pedigree as a strike against him. So what
did he do? He got bigger, stronger and showed why he was named
D3football.com's Defensive Player of the Year in
Courtesy Matt Bowen, Indianapolis Colts
|As an undergrad,
Freeman was the first Mary Hardin-Baylor player in history to
surpass 300 tackles. But that was just one staggering stat for the
future NFL starting linebacker, seen taking down a UW-Whitewater
UMHB athletics photo
Had Jerrell Freeman played linebacker at the University of Texas and excelled as a Longhorn on Saturdays, his story likely would be very different. Had he been an All-American for the burnt orange, an opportunity to be drafted and play in the NFL would have been less problematic.
But, Freeman played for Mary Hardin-Baylor. In Division III, UMHB is well known as a perennial power from the American Southwest Conference. The Cru is a mainstay in the playoffs and has a national title game appearance in 2004.
Even with a D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year Award, multiple All-America selections and 48.5 career tackles for a loss, pulling a linebacker from a Division III school straight to the NFL is a rarity.
Politics are involved. Even if Freeman was NFL ready after he finished his career with UMHB in 2007, clubs are likely to give players they drafted and invested money in an opportunity to play before an undrafted free agent, much less a player who competed at the D-III level.
"It was always a strike against me," Freeman said. "You had to prove you could compete beyond the level of competition you faced in college. It was hard for me personally, I needed to add weight, and I needed to erase the stereotype."
Freeman signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2008 and was cut twice after being re-signed.
"After OTAs [organized team activities] I was cut, but a week later a couple of guys had gotten banged up and they flew me back out," he recalled. "But, a week later I got cut. The staff up there said 'you are an NFL linebacker, but not here, and not now.' "
Freeman returned to UMHB, helped with the football coaching staff and continued to work out while fielding calls from NFL clubs, but he received nothing substantive. The Canadian Football League began calling as well, but the interested teams were already roster committed for the 2008 season.
"That was the toughest part after being cut by Tennessee. I was out a whole year, and I went back to school and coached and kept working out but not knowing what my next move was."
The NFL was the dream, but it was the CFL that offered Freeman first. The Saskatchewan Roughriders signed him for the 2009 season, where he played three seasons through 2011.
"When I went up there, I just had the mindset that I was not coming home, I just couldn't go home," said Freeman. "The CFL is likely the last place players go before their career is over, so I just worked and worked, and fortunately I got to show what I had."
His numbers in the CFL turned heads as he tallied 105 tackles, six sacks and had three interceptions in 2011 earning CFL Defensive Player of the Month for September and All-Star honors.
The Indianapolis Colts offered Freeman an opportunity to get on board early in preparation for the 2012 season by signing him to a reserve/future contract Jan. 19. However, Freeman has shown he's far from a reserve and proved he might be in the future plans at linebacker for the Colts.
After signing in January, Freeman did not have to come home to Waco or go back to UMHB; he made the NFL roster and suited up for his first NFL regular season game at Soldier Field as the Colts took on the Bears on Sept. 9. Freeman started at linebacker.
On the second offensive possession for Chicago, Bears' quarterback Jay Cutler tried to hit his running back Matt Forte in the flat, but the D-III alum Freeman, who had four career defensive touchdowns at UMHB, jumped the route, picked off the pass and needed only a couple of steps to reach the endzone for his first NFL touchdown.
The play erased any doubt of what he was told by the Titans' staff in 2008; Freeman is an NFL linebacker and his time had more than arrived. Not to mention, a small amount of seismic activity may have been detected in Belton, Texas on the campus of Mary-Hardin Baylor shortly after the score.
"I think everybody at Mary Hardin-Baylor is best friends with Jerrell Freeman," said Crusaders head football coach Pete Fredenburg. "They are proud to know him, and he has been a real asset to this school."
Freeman leads the Colts in tackles with 48 through five games of the NFL season and has a forced fumble to add to his resume to accompany the pick-6. During Week 4 of the NFL season, the Colts had a bye week, and Freeman stopped by UMHB.
"He was here on his open date and came by and visited. He's enjoying it obviously and it's been a new experience for him," Fredenburg said. "He enjoys the city and the ability to play; he does admit his body's taken a beating, but I guess that comes with the territory."
Maybe that beating is payback for the beatings that he inflicted while playing linebacker for the Cru. He was the first UMHB player in history to surpass 300 tackles and also tallied 15 sacks, 16 pass breakups and five forced fumbles.
"He just loved to play, he never missed a minute of it. He worked hard to get his body in shape and studied the game with an incredible passion," Fredenburg recalls. "He had a tremendous instinct for where the football was. I knew we had something pretty special when he came here."
Since the NFL reduced the number of rounds in the draft to seven in 1994, only 12 players have been drafted out of NCAA Division III schools. Ten players are on active NFL rosters in 2012 with four more on the practice squad and two on injured reserve. Players such as Freeman, Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson (Coe) and Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon (Mount Union) are out to prove that there is talent in the D-III arena.
"You have to be willing to put in the work and sacrifice a lot," Freeman said. "But a lot of guys have talent now, we have D3 guys come in more and more. If you want it, and you have the skill set to go get it, don't let anybody tell you that you can't."
For a list of Division III players in the NFL, see D3football.com's FAQs.
Trinity has done its best to get back on track and get back in the playoff picture since suffering losses to two ASC teams in Mary Hardin-Baylor and Sul Ross State. The Tigers went a long way with a 30-21 win over Birmingham-Southern. Both BSC and Trinity have the formidable Millsaps opponent on its remaining schedules and will need to take care of business in the remaining games that they will likely be favored to win. If both win out – 8-2 records will put them on the bubble for a Pool B or Pool C bid.
Meanwhile, Huntingdon enters its second off-week setting up a do-or-die matchup against Wesley on Oct. 27 in Montgomery, Ala. With only nine regular season games, finishing 7-2 may be tougher to sell than 8-2.
Millsaps won its league game against Sewanee to move to 5-1 on the season while Rhodes picked up a 14-0 shutout against Macalester. Millsaps with good offensive balance this year with 1,615 passing yards and 1,051 rushing yards through six games and just eight turnovers on the season. Garrett Pinciotti's touchdown to interception ratio is 14:3.
Sul Ross quarterback A.J. Springer told me a few weeks ago when talking about senior running back Dominique Carson -- "it's kind of like watching a video game." Well that video game mentality took an even more true form as Sul Ross outlasted Texas Lutheran 70-65 behind eight touchdowns from Carson. You read that right ... 70-65 and eight touchdowns for Carson. Carson had five the week before against Mississippi College but put up a statistical game for the ages Saturday. He had 319 yards on 22 carries for six touchdowns, including a long run of 70 yards. He also caught three passes for two touchdowns, including an 83-yard score.
Carson tied a 19-year old Division III single-game record with Carey Bender of Coe who also scored 48 points against Beloit, Nov. 12 1994. The senior running back leads the ASC (third in all of D-III) in rushing (170.2 pg), ranks fourth in receiving (85.8) and is first in the nation in scoring with 21 touchdowns. The next highest player on the scoring list in the ASC is Tevin Mitchell of Hardin-Simmons with 10 touchdowns. And, we're not done – he leads the nation averaging 307.7 of all-purpose yardage per game between rushing, receiving and returns. An underrated player on a struggling program is shining with the addition of Springer, and I hope voters will garner him some national recognition this season.
Now, on to the ASC -- obviously the big matchup is between Hardin-Simmons and No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. Both squads are 3-0 in conference play; UMHB is 6-0 overall and HSU is trying to overcome two early season losses to Willamette and Linfield. The Cowboys cannot afford a loss if they want a chance at Pool C bid with the ASC title notwithstanding. To play spoiler, HSU will have to defeat UMHB for the first time since 2004.
If HSU comes out with a loss -- the battle for second place could be a wild one. Sul Ross' high powered offense, an improved Cowboys team and a solid Louisiana College team trying to reach win No. 8 in a season for the first time will all have to face each other before season's end. TLU is not out of the picture either. Sul Ross and LC square off in Alpine at 2 p.m. while HSU and UMHB (haven't lost in the regular season at home since 2006) play in Belton at the same time. HSU gets Sul Ross the following week (Oct. 27), TLU Nov. 3 and LC to close the regular season Nov. 10. Anything can happen.