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March 28, 2013
Marcus Freeman is intense, tough and demanding.
He expects his linebackers to be the same.
And that's been one of the biggest challenges in his first spring as an assistant at Purdue.
"We're getting better," Freeman said after Thursday's practice. "The biggest thing I tell them is I've got to see them compete more. We're too OK with being average. I'm not OK with that as a coach. I want to be the best. I try to put that on those guys to realize that you think you're working hard, but we're not working hard enough. That's what I try to instill in them. We have to work harder.
"We'll become better football players and better linebackers, but to me the first part of that is working harder than you've ever worked before."
The Boilermakers have three linebackers back who have started, Sean Robinson, Joe Gilliam and Will Lucas.
They're the same three players who have been largely working with the first unit this spring.
Freeman has seen flashes in each of them, praising Robinson's intelligence and ability to transfer what he learns in the meeting room onto the field, seeing how Lucas' natural athletic abilities and liking Gilliam's work ethic.
Now, that group, as well as fourth on the depth chart Armstead Williams, will get a chance to showcase their abilities more.
Freeman is teaching a bit of a different approach than Tim Tibesar did last year.
"I don't know how the previous coach did it, but watching film they were huge, no matter what, stay in your gap, stay in your gap. I'm more of read your key, once I've done my job, be a football player and get to the ball," Freeman said. "I want you to get to the ball. At times is that going to hurt us? Probably. But to me moreso than often, we're going to have a chance to make a play even when we're not covering our gap. We do our job, then let's get to the ball."
That's an exciting style for the players, Robinson said.
It's what can allow them be what Freeman wants: "Tough, dirty, ugly, mean."
"That's really what it takes," Robinson said. "That doesn't mean you have to be jerks about it. But when the ball is snapped, there's got to be something different about you. Freeman always talks about that, 'You've got to be a different bird to succeed at linebacker.' And that's the truth."
It was "only" a torn PCL, something that Harris said should have taken six weeks, eight tops, to return from. But it kept lingering and he's finally in the "strengthening phase" of the process and has been able to practice this spring.
Harris' presence could be important.
Though Frankie Williams currently is working with the starters at cornerback opposite Ricardo Allen, Harris has moved up from working with the No. 3s on the first day of spring to getting some reps with the 1s in place of Williams.
"When I saw the depth chart at first, I was upset. I'm not going to lie," he said of starting with the third unit. "But I knew it was because of the injury, I haven't been there, I haven't been doing what everyone else has been doing. So I just stayed calm, worked within the system, did everything as hard as I can, enthusiastically, and it's working out for the better and moving up how I though I would."
In one-on-one drills vs. receivers, Harris has been especially physical, which has led to some PBUs but also likely would-be flags. But his aggressive style could be helpful, especially considering opposing QBs likely will try to stay away from Allen.
Though Harris has done well in recent practices, his rise up the depth chart was stalled some before of what he hasn't been able to do off the field.
Because the new staff wasn't hired before players had to schedule classes, several guys have been forced to miss partial or entire practices this spring. But they're also missing important position meetings, as has been the case with Harris.
"He's doing a good job. He's had some good practices," secondary coach Jon Heacock said. "I've been pleased with him and encouraged. He's in class a lot, so he's missing a lot of meeting time. That puts him in a little bit of a minus, but he's got to be in class. He's an older guy, and he's doing what he has to do. But the other side of that is he is missing some stuff. But he's coming along."
Harris said he thinks Allen and Williams deserve to be the top two on the depth chart right now, but he expects to keep pushing them.
"When I show that I deserve to be there, I'll be there," he said.
Freeman, for one, can't wait.
He's in charge of the punt team, which he says he quickly realized is the "most important play in football."
Freeman's first season at Kent State, his first coaching the unit, the team was last in the Mid-American Conference, he said. He quickly knew, "We probably should work a little harder."
In his second season, the Golden Flashes were No. 1 unit in the MAC, he said.
"Here, we want to be the No. 1 punt team in the nation. We won't stop until we get there," Freeman said. "I take a lot of pride in that. It goes back to my days with Coach (Jim) Tressel. He made a huge emphasis on saying, 'Hey, punt is the most important play in football because it's the only play you can average 40 yards of field position every single time.' We put a huge emphasis on that starting at Ohio State, Kent State and now here."
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