By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — Jerrell Freeman wasn't eligible for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors last season, but he had as big an impact for the Indianapolis Colts as any newcomer in the league in 2012.
The fact it took the inside linebacker four years after leaving college to reach football's biggest stage only added to his surprising success.
Cut by the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent following training camp in 2008, Freeman spent 2009-11 playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League.
Last January, he became general manager Ryan Grigson's first acquisition with the Colts. When Pat Angerer was injured during the preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams, Freeman moved into the starting lineup. And he was just getting started.
He scored Indianapolis' first touchdown of the season with an interception return against Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears in his first NFL regular season game, and he set a franchise record with 145 tackles last season.
So it should come as no surprise Freeman — who is the only player ever from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor to play in the NFL — wasn't about to let a shoulder injury slow him down this summer.
The linebacker missed the end of the second week of training camp and sat out Sunday's preseason loss against the Buffalo Bills. But he was back on the practice field Tuesday afternoon at Anderson University, and he said following Wednesday's morning walkthrough he has no limitations.
"It's kind of hard to hold me back," Freeman said. "Sometimes you have to save me from myself. Whenever I'm in there, I'm going 100 percent."
The Colts likely were saving Freeman from himself by holding him out against the Bills.
He's the only player who seems assured of a starting spot at one of Indianapolis' two inside linebacker positions. Angerer — who was activated from the physically unable to perform list Tuesday but is unlikely to make his preseason debut until at least Aug. 24 against the Cleveland Browns — figures to be in the mix at the other position. He's joined by a group including Kavell Conner, Kelvin Sheppard and possibly Josh McNary — if the former Army lieutenant can quickly return from a hamstring injury.
Whomever lines up next to Freeman will be playing behind a rebuilt defensive line that includes free agent additions Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean Francois as well as second-year nose tackle Josh Chapman — who missed his entire rookie season recovering from knee surgery.
The added muscle up front should free the linebackers up to make even more plays in 2013.
"We had some good linemen last year," Freeman said. "This year we've got some real good linemen. Hopefully, (we'll) have a great time gelling together, getting with those guys here practicing and hopefully in games."
Freeman has shown a renewed confidence in his second season in the Colts' hybrid 3-4 scheme, and he seems to be a good fit for the team's focus on increased physicality. His speed allows him to make plays from sideline-to-sideline, and if the bulked up defensive line can keep blockers off of him that quickness could become an even greater asset.
Freeman hopes fans will get their first look at how he fits in with the new pieces during Sunday's second preseason game at the New York Giants.
He wants to play in that contest and plans to spend the final two days of training camp helping the team get ready to improve upon the 44-20 loss in the opener.
"It's training camp, man," Freeman said. "Just out here trying to get better, better ourselves — offense, defense and special teams. Hopefully, we can put on a better show this weekend."