Riders' Jerrell Freeman is 'helluva pass rusher

Ian Hamilton

REGINA — In a way, Jerrell Freeman’s linebacking career with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders has come to an end.

The 24-year-old product of Waco, Texas, remains a linebacker with the team, but he’s having more of an impact as a rush end in certain packages.

“He’s a helluva pass rusher,” Roughriders defensive co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry said after Wednesday’s practice at Mosaic Stadium. “He could play several positions for us, but we’ve kind of stumbled on to him in a substitution pattern that we have.

“(Linebacker) Mike McCullough is the headliner in that substitution pattern, but (Freeman) is quickly becoming a headliner right alongside McCullough.”

The 6-foot-0, 220-pound Freeman hasn’t been a defensive end since he was at University High School in Waco. He was a linebacker at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and was a backup middle linebacker in 2009 during his rookie season with the Roughriders.

Freeman still plays that position, but he has become a fixture at end in one of Saskatchewan’s alignments.

“It’s a way to get on the field,” he said. “In this defence, you can be playing defensive end one play, linebacker the next and covering the slot receiver the next. You can’t just put a stamp on the position. There’s a lot of flexibility in the defence with me being out there and guys like (McCullough) being out there. We can do a lot of different things.”

Freeman’s ability to do several things earned him the look at end.

“Fundamentally, he’s a middle linebacker for us and usually middle linebackers are not overly gifted pass rushers,” Etcheverry said. “But we knew that he has a lot of abilities. The thing we try to avoid is having guys think that they can only do certain things ...

“Last year there were times when he was playing man to man on the second receiver in from the short side of the field in certain things. We know he can still do that. This is just another significant tool that he has in his belt.”

In ‘09, Freeman had 15 tackles, a pass knockdown and a fumble recovery as a backup linebacker in 17 regular-season games. He also led the Roughriders with 25 special-teams stops.

He didn’t have a defensive tackle in the Roughriders’ 54-51 double-overtime victory July 1 over the visiting Montreal Alouettes, but recorded three special-teams tackles. He had one stop on defence and one on special teams in Saturday’s 37-18 win over the host B.C. Lions.

He also could have claimed a sack of Lions quarterback Travis Lulay. Freeman appeared to get to Lulay first, but defensive end Brent Hawkins hit the quarterback high to force a fumble that Hawkins recovered and returned 40 yards for a touchdown.

“I don’t know if that was my sack or not,” Freeman said with a laugh. “I’m not going to take it away from (Hawkins) because he was flying in there.

“I’m just happy to be on the field, happy that they trust me enough to put me on the field in certain situations.”

That said, he has more work to do. He’s relatively unfamiliar with the position, so he’s still adjusting.

“I didn’t know it took that much out of you to be a pass rusher,” said Freeman, whose squad plays host to the Edmonton Eskimos on Saturday.

“I saw Stevie (Baggs) and (John) Chick do it last year and they did it effortlessly. I thought it was going to be like that, but it isn’t. You’ve got to get your wind up, your steps right, your technique and everything. There’s a lot that goes into being a pass rusher. I’m all ears when it comes to any suggestions.”

He credits the other defensive linemen, especially end Luc Mullinder, with helping him get used to his new role.

“When I talk to (Freeman), I just try to give him little hints and tips to utilize his speed to his advantage,” Mullinder said. “It’s one thing just to try to run past a guy, but it’s another thing when offensive tackles come into the game knowing you’re faster than anybody.

“The good thing about (Freeman) is that he has really watched guys. He has developed such a pass-rush range . . . He looks really good out there.”

ihamilton@leaderpost.canwest.com