Freeman eyes big plays, big day Hokies' junior split end from Poly will put Terps to the test

September 23, 1993|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

Producing the big play always has been Antonio Freeman's specialty.

Freeman's talent led to the unthinkable at Poly, where Augie Waibel, a proponent of 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football, opened up the offense to get the ball to his wide receiver. Freeman was The Sun Offensive Player of the Year in 1989, when his 1,079 yards receiving led the state.

Freeman is in a similar situation at Virginia Tech, which plays host to Maryland on Saturday. The Hokies' ground game is No. 5 in Division I-A, but when they want to go a long way in a short time, split end Freeman's role is magnified.

"He's definitely a big-play guy," said Virginia Tech receivers coach Terry Strock, a Maryland assistant from 1972 to 1981. "He doesn't have burning speed, but he gets open and turns it into a big play. Antonio's a perfectionist who wants to get the most out of every play. Every time I grade him down on a play -- and I don't do that often -- he wants to know why."

Freeman, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior, set a Virginia Tech record last year by averaging 22.0 yards per catch. He had 32 catches and six touchdowns and became the second Hokies player to have three touchdown receptions that covered more than 60 yards.

Freeman has just six catches this year, five against Bowling Green in the opener, but Strock said he hasn't dropped a pass. The ground game rolled against Pitt, but nothing worked in a 21-2 loss to Miami last week. The Hokies' biggest gain? A 38-yard reverse by Freeman.

"At times, I get antsy and wish we threw the ball more, but, at this point, I just want to be part of a winning program," Freeman said.

Like Maryland, Virginia Tech had fourth-quarter troubles in 1992, when the Hokies went 2-8-1, but they can surpass last year's win total by beating Maryland. Besides juggling his staff this year, coach Frank Beamer allowed Freeman a bigger role, having him return punts.

"That was kind of my idea," Freeman said. "A lot of receivers that get to the next level do something else. I thought I'd give it a try."

Freeman's pro aspirations received a psychological boost when Vaughn Hebron, his predecessor as The Sun Offensive Player of the Year while at Cardinal Gibbons, parlayed a good but not great career as a Virginia Tech tailback into a spot with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The NFL is a considerable distance from the Oliver Rec Center, where Freeman was still playing football as late as his sophomore year. According to Waibel, Freeman wasn't academically eligible to play until his junior year, when he had an immediate impact.

"We knew 'Buttons' [Freeman's nickname since a delivery-room nurse said he was cute as a button], but Antonio began his junior year on the second-team," Waibel said. "Against McDonogh, he made an unbelievable catch on a ball behind him that couldn't have been more than three inches off the ground, then took it down to the 2- or 3-yard line."

Nine of Freeman's 47 catches in 1989 went for touchdowns, including two in a Thanksgiving Day rout of City. It capped a 10-0 season that ranked Poly No. 1 in the area and No. 23 in the nation.

Maryland expressed some interest in Freeman, but never offered him a scholarship. He also attracted the attention of basketball recruiters, before going with Virginia Tech football. After redshirting as a freshman, Freeman had 19 receptions in 1991. He began last year as a reserve, but became the Hokies' most consistent offensive threat after injuries to Hebron and others.

The Virginia Tech offense, which starts with preseason All-America center Jim Pyne, was stopped by Miami, which briefly knocked out quarterback Maurice DeShazo with a sprained knee that shouldn't keep him out of the Maryland game. The Hurricanes are allowing 4.5 points per game, second in the nation behind Florida State, but the 48.0 Maryland has given up ranks last among the 106 teams in Division I-A.

"This is a good week for all of us to break free and get back on track," Freeman said.

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