• Indiana State (8-5) at UTC (9-3)
• Saturday, 1 p.m., Finley Stadium
• 96.1 FM, ESPN3
Even without horn-rimmed glasses or a pocket protector, Josh Freeman is a football nerd. Knowing he lacks the size to match most of the mountainous linemen he faces in the trenches, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga junior defensive tackle overcomes the physical disadvantage by spending hours studying opponents' video, then transferring what he learns onto the field.
And throughout his career as a three-year starter, more often than not the psychology major has used his intelligence and ability to diagram an opponent's weakness to win his battle.
"I never really think about the size thing on the field," said Freeman, who snickers at the fact he's listed at 6-foot in the program and admits he's maybe 5-foot-11 if he stands up really straight. "In high school it broke my heart when college coaches told me my height was the reason they weren't recruiting me. I pride myself on being smart, so I decided to use that, along with my strength and good leverage, as the way to equalize things and beat blocks.
"I feel like if I study film and have a good idea of what the other guy is going to try to do to me, chances are I'll be a step ahead."
Besides watching video with the team, Freeman often comes in early, stays after practice or even studies opponents' tape in his apartment room. That extra work has helped the 270-pounder maintain his starting job, ahead of former four-star prep All-American and likely future NFL draftee Derrick Lott.
Pro scouts who come to watch Lott and UTC All-America end Davis Tull at practice are surprised when they see the smaller Freeman trot onto the field with the starters, ahead of the 6-4, 305-pound Lott.
"We've got a policy among our D-linemen to say whatever you feel," UTC defensive line coach Marcus West said. "And I promise you, nobody in that room questions why Free is our starter. He's our most necessary piece up front. He's the quarterback on defense, the guy who makes sure everybody else is lined up where they should or makes the check calls to get us in the right places. He's about the only player that Davis Tull will take advice from -- that's how much respect he has.
"He starts because he just understands the game and studies more than anybody how to beat the guys lined up on the other side. Works in a space about the size of a phone booth but sees the whole field."
After a freshman season in which he was a starter, Freeman underwent shoulder surgery and showed up for spring workouts so out of shape (295 pounds) that coaches decided to redshirt him. Freeman admits he was angry at the time, but rather than pout about having to practice each day without getting to play on Saturdays, he showed up motivated to improve.
Still, he remembers standing on the sideline crying during several games during that 2012 season, knowing he wouldn't play.
"He realized how important the game is to him that year," West said. "His most important year was the year he redshirted. A lot of guys will take their redshirt year and just go through the motions. He competed with the scout team, against the starters, asked a bunch of questions and he got better.
"In our first game last year he was the one on the sideline who spoke up and ripped into the whole defense for the way we were playing. I didn't know how guys would respond to that since he was just coming back and was only a sophomore, but they all got behind him. I knew right then that he had become our leader."
Freeman returned to the lineup last year with a greater appreciation for the game and turned in an All-Southern Conference season. He was voted one of four team captains for this season, a rarity for a junior, but was left off the postseason all-conference list despite comparable stats that included the same number of sacks (4) and one fewer tackle for loss (6.5).
Freeman came up with a huge momentum-shifting play in the Mocs' final regular-season game at Furman. Early in the second quarter, with the score tied and Furman driving, Freeman stuffed a fourth-and-1 run for a yard loss, and the Mocs followed with a scoring drive of their own to take the lead for good.
Freeman later explained that he knew what play was coming by recognizing the formation as being the same as Furman ran against UTC two years ago in short-yardage situations.
"He's one of the smartest football players I've ever played with," Tull said. "He's our whole nucleus, and I think this is the best year he's ever played. For us to have 22 all-conference players and not include Josh Freeman is a crime. He's a man out there."
Just moments after Indiana State had passed Eastern Kentucky dizzy with 36 unanswered points in last Saturday's first-round playoff beatdown, Freeman began sending text messages to his D-line teammates about UTC's second-round opponent.
Noting the Sycamores threw the ball 57 times, Freeman reminded his fellow linemen they would have plenty of chances to pressure quarterback Mike Perish, who was sacked just once by EKU. The Sycamores have thrown the ball 179 more times than they've run it this season, including 33 more passes than rushing attempts last week.
"It's exciting," Freeman said. "It's going to be a challenge because they don't just drop back and sling it. They know where they're going with it, they're huge up front and even that quarterback is a big guy. We've got to get to him as fast as possible and disrupt them.
"The best thing we have going is we rotate a lot of guys on the D-line and give them different styles of players rushing. For me it's a chance to go against a style we don't get to see a whole lot, and I like the challenge."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.