FSU's Freeman finds his voice

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher was the last to leave the practice field, shuffling back toward his office with a cadre of reporters in tow, when Devonta Freeman jogged past in the opposite direction.

Fisher turned and shouted after him, calling Freeman by the number on his jersey, which was soaked in sweat: "What are you doing, 8?"

The question didn't need to be asked. Fisher knew.

It's been a ritual so far this fall that every day, after the rest of the team has retreated from the scorching sun, Florida State's leading rusher returns to the practice field, drags a series of bright orange step-over dummies into position, and resumes his work.

"I'm just trying to improve my game," Freeman said, "getting a little extra footwork in to be precise in my cuts."

It's not just the extra work after practice that has caught Fisher's attention. It's that attention to detail, Freeman's determination to improve his game wherever possible. And through the first 10 days of workouts, no one has looked better than the junior tailback.

"He's playing exceptionally well," Fisher said. "He's had the best camp of anybody on the team."

It's deserved praise, but Freeman still seems an unlikely choice to be singled out given his penchant for flying beneath the radar during his first two years in Tallahassee. Behind gregarious veterans like Chris Thompson and Lonnie Pryor in FSU's backfield, Freeman's soft-spoken demeanor rarely stood out, and alongside a physical freak of nature like James Wilder Jr., Freeman didn't turn heads.

And yet, two years running, the man who'd opened the season third on the depth chart at tailback finished it by leading the team in rushing. It's experience that has taught Freeman a lot, and now that he's the elder statesman of the unit, he's eager to take a more front-and-center role, passing those lessons on to the next generation.

"I was just waiting on my time, not rushing things and being patient," Freeman said.

The work ethic comes naturally for Freeman, who has served as a template for coaches since high school. What's been more difficult is finding his voice.

"He's one of those guys who used to show by example. He's always worked hard. You could watch film and never see him lagging or going half speed," Wilder said. "But this year, we know that we're the upperclassmen now, and he has to speak up."

The product of a tough neighborhood outside Miami, where keeping a low profile was a means of survival, Freeman's never been the type to ask for attention. When his cousin -- a man Freeman referred to as a brother -- was gunned down near his family's home last fall, Freeman's first instinct was to keep his heartbreak to himself. Instead, his teammates embraced him, and it was advice from Thompson that helped Freeman push through his grief. It also set the standard for the type of teammate Freeman wanted to be this season.

When Thompson and Pryor left for the NFL, Freeman stepped forward. He's opened up, shared more of himself, and he's been quick to speak up when he feels it's necessary.

"[Players'] personalities come out as they evolve and gain confidence and go through situations in their life," Fisher said. "He's got a clear head, and his true personality is coming out. He's a phenomenal, phenomenal human being."

During practice last week, freshman tailback Ryan Green struggled through some early drills. The pace and intensity of practice at this level proved overwhelming, and Wilder was ready to step in.

Instead, it was Freeman who grabbed the freshman, pulled him to the side and put his arm around him. Green's struggles weren't unique, and Freeman offered a simple reminder that a few bad reps can't overwhelm his resolve.

"The rest of practice," Wilder said, "Ryan was balling."

Wisdom comes with experience, and Freeman's earned his share on and off the field.

Every few days, Freeman and Wilder meet in the locker room and talk about their goals. They've developed an ever-growing list of people they care about, the people they're playing for. It's motivation to keep pushing harder, a list of reasons to jog back onto the practice field even after everyone else has retired for the day. It's a list of reminders of the lessons he's learned and the wisdom he wants to pass along to his teammates who now look to him for advice.

"I try to give them the best advice," Freeman said, "because I was in their shoes and I know what they're going through."