July 11, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– There’s something to be said for the quiet leader — the guy that leads by example.
But what’s said BY the quiet leaders may have the biggest impact for Georgia Tech’s defense in 2016, especially up front.
Defensive line coach Mike Pelton is counting on them.
“I think a lot of guys look to Pat Gamble for that because he’s been around, he’s played, he’s kind of the guy they’re looking for that,” said Pelton. “KeShun probably had the strongest spring out of the defensive ends, which is expected. That guy has started for two years. He’s trying to establish a leadership role. He’s trying to do things that leaders try to do. I thought KeShun really had a positive spring.”
Freeman and Gamble finished 1-2 amongst Tech defensive linemen in tackles last season, ranked among the top three in tackles for loss and perhaps most important, became leaders following the knee injury that sidelined Adam Gotsis for basically the season’s final four games.
Those games sped up the necessity for someone to fill the leadership vacuum created by life after Gotsis this season both on the field and in the locker room. Freeman and Gamble, having already proved their worth on the field, recognized the urgency and left their comfort zones to answer the call.
“Over the years I never talked much, but now I’ve been kind of forced into that, and I’ve learned from everybody who was above me,” said the 6-5, 286-pound Gamble, who had career-bests in total tackles (38), solo tackles (19), tackles for loss (2.5), recorded his first career sack and blocked kick, both against Florida State, the latter resulting in the game-winning ‘Kick-six.’ “Coming in I had Izaan Cross, then Euclid Cummings, then Shawn Green, then it was Adam [Gotsis]. So now, it’s me. I’m taking everything that helped me be vocal, letting the young guys know when we’re slacking, when we’re doing well, what we need to work on and how we need to improve. Being in this room for four or five years, you really learn the game of football and you know what you’re looking for playing as a D-Lineman and what it takes to play on that field every Saturday.”
At 6-1, 236, Freeman also was reluctant to speak out, letting his play speak for him. He found that easier to do after his freshman season in which he earned freshman All-America, true freshman All-America and All-ACC honorable mention honors and last season finally decided to just let it rip.
“One game I just spoke out. I felt good doing it, and the team really accepted it,” he said. “So I’m carrying it over, showing people, ‘We can have energy, we can have some enthusiasm, we just need to play like we played when we were younger. We did it for fun. If we do it for fun, if we go out there and do what we have to do, we’ll be a winning team.’ When I’m speaking I try to encourage everyone.”
As a sophomore, Freeman made 44 tackles (23 solo) — including a career-high seven in the win over Florida State — with 2.0 sacks and 4.0 TFLs in 10 games. His sophomore numbers dipped slightly, but Freeman’s worth to the defensive line sprouted substantially.
Now as an upperclassman, he knows his responsibilities continue to grow, and he’s responded by stepping into the leadership role during the spring and stepping it up over the summer. But he insists he’s not flying solo.
“I know Pat and [redshirt senior Rod] Rook[-Chungong] and I are working with the younger guys,” he said. “We’ve been taking them to the indoor [practice facility] and working with them, doing drills, so it can be an easy transition when they go to camp. If you go to camp unprepared it can be very difficult so we’re trying to show them the basics so when we get to camp we can build on those basics.”
Their mutual respect adds credibility to their message.
“Pat’s a really great player,” said Freeman. “Last year, he had so much motivation. He wasn’t just playing for himself. He was playing for his family, his mom. He really turned into a big leader for the defensive line and he’s really a good leader. When he sees someone not doing what they have to do, he calls them out, and he treats all of us the same. He says, ‘You’re my teammate. I’m depending on you like you’re depending on me. So we’re going to do this together.’ We get together sometimes and have discussions as a whole defensive line, and he will lead those.”
“KeShun used to be a quiet guy. He got more vocal. He’s become a leader,” said Gamble. “He improved on his work ethic, getting stronger. He’s really getting better in his pass rush. He’s becoming an all-around good player. He has big things in his future.”
The duo would like to see big things in the immediate future for the Yellow Jackets defensive line, which comes into 2016 as deep as it’s been in recent memory, and is loaded with young, impressionable talent.
“It feels like I’m paying it forward, because when I came in, I was looking up to some of those older guys like Adam Gotsis, D.J. White, Justin Thomas,” said Freeman, who is taking a math class over the summer while also doing an internship at Barton Executive Search. “Now guys are looking up to me like that. I can have the same impact that those guys had on me to encourage them. A lot of the freshmen, the first thing they ask me is, ‘How did it feel to be a freshman All-American?’ I tell them ‘It’s a team thing. My team helped me get this, but you can easily achieve the same thing by coming in, being willing to work and just being enthusiastic about what you do.’ Come in, have fun, be willing to go the extra mile when other people aren’t, that’s what’s going to help you be a player on the field, and that’s what’s going to help you go far. So it feels good to be able to shine that light on younger players.”
Gamble, who received his degree in Literature, Media and Communication in May and is spending the summer working internships at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and at the Georgia Tech Cable Network, is preparing for his final collegiate season and hasn’t been shy offering the newcomers lessons in perspective. He knows just how much and in how many different ways one can contribute, even if it’s not necessarily on Saturday, as he earned Tech’s defensive scout team player of the year while redshirting as a true freshman.
“I definitely can tell they look up to me and look to me for advice in certain situations and what to get better at,” he said. “It’s amazing how time flies. I also try to pass that down to them, let them know that time is going to fly by. You’re just getting here in June, the next thing you know, you’ll be in my shoes. Just letting them know about everything and what it takes to play on that field every Saturday.”
There’s the added incentive of bouncing back from the difficult 2015 season.
“We know we can do better, and we expect better of ourselves,” Gamble said. “We need to go out there and take care of business every Saturday and every workout, all the extra work you may do. All that has to be put toward the season, to have a better year and to get back on track. That way I can leave knowing that I left something for the younger guys to build on.”
While no longer afraid to be more vocal, neither Gamble nor Freeman foresees issuing many motivational talks to the unit.
“I like ALL our freshmen,” said Gamble. “They’re very competitive and they’re hungry. I love that about them. I see it in Brentavious (Glanton), Kyle (Cerge-Henderson), Desmond [Branch]. I’m really confident in the whole freshman class. They’re very competitive and have very good knowledge of the game. We’re hungry to get better, hungry to win games, hungry to play.”
“I think we have guys that are definitely trying to learn,” said Freeman. “Spring was the teaching time. So when we get to camp, we’re going to try to build on that. We have to keep our mentality strong. Everyone’s mentality this spring and in the offseason is just to get better. If people can continue to keep that mentality and do the things that they say they want to do and perform like they want to perform we can do great things.”