FLOWERY BRANCH — When the Atlanta Falcons released leading rusher Steven Jackson in February and opted to not re-sign Jacquizz Rodgers it appeared the starting running back job would be handed to Devonta Freeman entering his second NFL season.
Then the Falcons drafted Tevin Coleman — who ran for over 3,000 yards in his college career at Indiana — in the third round of April’s draft, leaving Freeman in a battle for the starting spot.
“I leave that up to the coaches,” Freeman said when asked if he felt he had a good grip on the starting job through organized team activities. “I just come out here and do my job. I know I’m going to bust my butt every single day, I’m going to finish every single play. I’m going to do my job to compete every day. At the end of the day the coaches have the last say, so the last call, but I’m always going to compete hard, hard as I can.”
That competitive spirit is what new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn loves most about Freeman.
During the first week of OTAs the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator was very complimentary of the 2014 fourth-round pick.
“I love the competitive attitude that Devonta brings,” Quinn said. “To me when you’re having one of the best offseasons you’ve ever had — he’s one of the guys who’s like ‘I’m here coach, I’m ready.’ He wanted to be the first at doing everything so that told you what (a) competitor he is. I knew he had terrific hands … you saw that as part of his game and then now to add what he’s doing in the run game I can’t wait to watch him work. He doesn’t back down from anything. That’s one of the things I love about Devonta the most, every challenge, ‘Yup. I’m ready for the next one.’ That’s one of the things I really do admire about him and his game.”
Battling for carries is nothing new to Freeman. In high school at Miami Central he didn’t start until he was a senior after splitting carries with future Kentucky tailback Brandon Gainer. When he did get the chance to start as a senior he ran for 2,208 yards and 26 scores en route to the Florida Class AAAAAA state title.
In college he also split carries at Florida State. Early in his career he shared carries primarily with Washington Redskins’ tailback Chris Thompson and Cincinnati Bengal James Wilder Jr. As a senior he started all 14 games as FSU went on to win the 2013 national championship, but again he split carries with Wilder Jr. and Buffalo Bills’ rookie Karlos Williams.
Despite sharing the load with two other backs as a junior, Freeman became the first Seminole to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season since former Falcon Warrick Dunn in 1996, as he finished with 1,016 yards.
“I’ve been competing all my life,” Freeman said. “At Florida State that was our main thing — compete in practice. That’s what made the games a lot easier for us. Even in high school and Pop Warner I’ve been playing around some of the best guys always, competing.”
Last year as a rookie Freeman was second on the team with 248 yards rushing on 68 carries, scoring once on the ground. He also caught 30 passes for 225 yards and a TD.
This summer he’s starting from scratch as he looks to get more familiar with new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. Freeman said that even though it’s a new system he’s learning, the fact that he’s not rookie has made the offseason feel smoother.
“I feel a lot (more) comfortable having one year under my belt,” he said. “Learning the offense it’s just like last year but I’m learning to create study habits. I’m forcing myself to learn. If I’m putting in 30 minutes a day, an hour extra, just to focus on a few little details to help my game.”
Until he gets a full grasp on the new system Freeman will do what he’s always done — compete for his chance to be the starter.