PROVO — A couple of hours after the BYU football team wrapped up another grueling practice in early November, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes showered and changed clothes and was preparing to head home for the night when he heard voices coming from the Cougars’ film room.
He peeked inside and saw veteran offensive lineman Chandon Herring giving pointers to Blake Freeland, the true freshman who has started at right tackle the past four games despite having never played the position at Herriman High School.
“What Blake is doing is pretty incredible,” Grimes said.
And the 6-foot-8, 285-pound teenager is doing it quite well, considering he was a quarterback his junior year at Herriman and a tight end and defensive end his senior year. Freeland is expected to get his fifth straight start on Saturday when the Cougars (6-4) travel to Amherst, Massachusetts, to take on UMass (1-10) at 10 a.m. MST.
“We are just really proud of the progress he is making,” Grimes said, crediting offensive line coach Eric Mateos and Freeland’s fellow linemates such as Herring, James Empey, Brady Christensen and Keanu Saleapaga for showing the rookie the ropes. “You don’t find yourself in that position if you are not talented and if you don’t have some confidence in yourself.”
- BYU offensive lineman Blake Freeland (71) walks onto the field during pre-game festivities before the Cougars’ 28-25 win over Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Jaren Wilkey/BYU
- BYU offensive lineman Blake Freeland (71) looks to block during the Cougars’ 28-25 win over Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Madeline Mortensen/BYU
Funny thing is, Freeland doesn’t come off as being all that confident or full of himself. He speaks softly, describes himself in self-deprecating fashion, blushes when classmates recognize him as being part of the football team and looks genuinely embarrassed when it is suggested he should give BYU basketball coach Mark Pope a call to see if the size-challenged Cougar hoops team could use a former all-state center.
“Coming out of high school, (recruiting services) called me an athlete,” Freeland said, when asked which position BYU wanted him to play in college. “I think they were just being nice.”
Actually, Freeland is a phenomenal athlete. Not only was he a two-time all-region football player and honorable mention all-state basketball player in high school, he was a state champion in all three of the “throws” at the 6A state track meet: discus, javelin and shot put.
Head coach Kalani Sitake said Freeland would have won another gold medal in the hammer throw, but the Utah High School Activities Association doesn’t have the event.
“The guy is an animal,” Sitake said.
And a fast learner.
During last Saturday’s 42-10 win over Idaho State, running back Sione Finau got most of the glory after taking a handoff from Zach Wilson and sprinting untouched to the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown run. It looked easy because Freeland blocked a linebacker and then a safety on the play, displaying unusual foot speed for such a big man.
Mateos said the “sky is the limit” for Freeland, although the freshman is going through some “growing pains” as he learns the new position and is thrust into playing one of the most difficult positions on the field.
“He’s a tough guy,” Mateos said. “He has football intelligence from playing those different positions in high school. And he’s got grit. … He has graded out OK, not (totally) what we are looking for in our room, but he’s improving.”
Empey, who also started as a true freshman — at center — and knows what it is like to be thrown into the fire quickly, said Freeland is a “natural athlete” who doesn’t let that stand in the way of hard work.
“Blake has responded well to the challenge,” Empey said. “He had to jump in there when (Saleapaga) was injured, and he has risen up and accepted it every step of the way. I am proud of him.”
Saleapaga has returned from the injury, but Freeland was doing well enough that Saleapaga was moved to start at guard in the place of Tristen Hoge, out for the season with an injury.
“It has been really great,” Freeland said. “The opportunity just kinda came to me, and I have surrounded myself with a bunch of good dudes that have helped me out. And all my coaches, coach Grimes, coach Mateos, have helped me get through this whole thing.”
Freeland’s parents both played at BYU, so when Sitake offered him a scholarship after his sophomore year of high school, he quickly accepted. Utah made a late push and offer, but he stuck to his commitment.
“I have always known that BYU was the place for me,” he said.
His father, James, played football for BYU from 1994-95 and his mother Debbie (nee: Dimond) played volleyball and basketball for BYU from 1991-95.
“Blake comes from good genes, so that what we were looking for,” said Sitake, who signed a three-year contract extension on Monday. “He’s a fighter and he works hard. He’s not new to success, or competition.”
But he is new to being an offensive lineman, even if that’s not readily apparent.
Cougars on the air
BYU (6-4) at Massachusetts (1-10)
At Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium, Amherst
Saturday, 10 a.m. MST
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM