University of Akron cornerback Malachi Freeman couldn’t be spotted in practice Monday morning.
As the Zips headed to their locker room at Stile Athletics Field House, his No. 20 was familiar — the body and face in it, however, belonged to linebacker Justin March. Freeman was there but was wearing March’s No. 5.
March and Freeman swapped jerseys last week in practice.
Is the senior defensive back getting superstitious before his last game with the Zips? Maybe a little, but that would belie an undeniable fact about Freeman. He’s really grown into the role of talented cornerback and team leader.
“Malachi is your true cover corner,” UA coach Terry Bowden said recently. “He’s the guy who can take your best receiver from the other team and you can assign him to that and he can kind of neutralize that person from the game. His talent level has been equal to every best receiver that I think we’ve come up against. If you had two of those, you could lock down both edges.”
Bowden isn’t trying to disparage any of his other players, but he does recognize that Freeman, a junior college transfer, elevated his game in his second season at UA.
Freeman ranks second in the Mid-American Conference among defensive backs with 12 passes defended and three interceptions. The passes defended ties him for 20th in the country.
“That’s pretty good. That’s pretty impressive,” cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley said. “I look at that two ways. He should be ranked higher in picks. One is good. One is great.”
After playing 14 years in the NFL, Buckley should know a thing or two about playing the position. As far as Freeman is concerned, he’s doing a great job of imparting that knowledge.
“It’s different for me because I never had an actual cornerbacks coach that actually teaches me fundamentals, teaches me about life, how to be a professional,” Freeman said. “It’s all about being consistent and doing it every day, just my work ethic in general and my effort.”
Freeman gives the coach — who is known as TBuck to his players — credit for his success at UA. Before that he said he got by more on raw talent at Nassau Community College in New York.
“I thought I understood defenses, but I didn’t. I thought I understood … concepts. I really didn’t understand things like that,” he said. “When he came in he really taught me about angling and technique and understanding all things — what’s going to happen in the middle of the field … just how to break down a route and watch film.”
That film study has paid off for Freeman, and his defensive teammates have become downright stingy when it comes to points in recent games — giving up 19.7 per game in their past four games. Most of the big plays have vanished and they are punishing offenses.
Freeman pointed out that more often than not he communicates with linebacker Jatavis Brown on the field. He and Brown both study film intensely and often know where the other is supposed to be during the Zips’ assorted defensive schemes.
At 5-foot-9, some might question whether Freeman has the potential to play on Sundays. If he’s fortunate enough to get invited to play in a couple of college all-star games and gets the right opportunity, anything is possible. Buckley believes that he can.
“He has the ability, but that’s just half the part,” Buckley said. “The other stuff that comes with it is how you work. Are you going to be a pro or professional?”
The difference between the two is vast, he said. A pro does what it takes to get by. A professional?
“You’re going to work,” he said. “You’re going to treat it like it’s your life. You’re going to go in early. Put in the work. Stay late, whatever it takes.”
Buckley, even now, still leads by example, Freeman said.
“Just watching him do the stuff that he does at this age is like pushing me [telling me] I don’t work hard enough,” he said. “That’s the definition of a professional to me.”
The Zips will play Appalachian State in a two-game series that will begin at InfoCision Stadium on Sept. 24, 2016, and land at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C., on Sept. 16, 2017. Appalachian State is best known for their David-like upset of the Michigan Wolverines on Sept. 1, 2007, as an FCS school. By the time they face the Zips they will be in their third year as an FBS program and member of the Sun Belt Conference.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.