FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick often expresses the importance of special teams, and that’s one reason he was so aggressive in signing linebacker Jonathan Freeny to a one-year contract this past March.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Freeny had been a core special-teams player with the Dolphins, so Belichick and the Patriots were familiar with his body of work from having faced him twice a season. Freeny also played at Rutgers under Greg Schiano, one of Belichick’s close friends in the coaching fraternity.
Freeny, now in his fourth NFL season, played 16 special-teams snaps in the Patriots’ season-opening victory as a core player on all four units – kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage and punt return.
He shares his football journey as part of our weekly feature:
When he first started playing football: “When I was 5 years old. My mom signed me up for a flag football league.”
First positions in football: “Offensive line.”
Favorite players growing up: “I used to always like watching the Lions because of Barry Sanders. My dad always used to show me old tapes of Lawrence Taylor.”
Role models growing up: “One of them is my father [Eddye]. He introduced me to football, watching it with him. He taught me a lot about the game at a young age. I remember he had me in the house, with couch pillows, teaching the proper way to tackle.”
Top memories at Coconut Creek (Florida) High School: “My senior year, it was our first time making the playoffs in almost 30 years. We made it to the regional finals, right before the state championship game.”
Enrolling at Rutgers (2007-2010): “I had some scholarship offers to consider – Maryland, Wake Forest, South Florida -- but I just liked [Coach Greg] Schiano. He used to be at the University of Miami and had recruited a lot of guys [in South Florida], so I already knew some guys on the team and enjoyed my visit. A big part of it was the academic part of it, too. Being around the guys every day, we were a close group. We had a lot of fun in the locker room.”
Comparing Schiano and Bill Belichick: “They’re two different guys. They’re both smart coaches, and do their business different ways. But they’re both effective.”
Preparing for the 2011 draft: “Going undrafted, I didn’t expect that to happen. When it did, I just went in and worked hard every day and eventually I got what I wanted in the end. That was the lockout year, so as a free agent, you didn’t know what you’d do.”
Signing with the Dolphins as a free agent: “I had some choices – the Jets, a couple other places – but Miami made a lot of sense because the special teams coordinator was the guy who recruited me to go to Rutgers. So I knew him and the scheme he liked to run on special teams, and I knew special teams would be my best chance of making the team.”
Spending 2011 on the practice squad and then playing for the Dolphins from 2012-2014: “It was great seeing all that hard work pay off. Through the years of playing this game, I always dreamed I’d make it there and for it to finally happen, meant a lot to me. Similar to Rutgers, I developed a close connection with the guys.”
Not being tendered an offer as a restricted free agent this past offseason: “I knew it was a possibility. The general manager was fairly new. They had a new scouting director. They weren’t as familiar with me, so I knew it was a possibility that I’d hit the market. A couple teams called me when free agency opened up; the Patriots were the first visit I took. I came here, liked the environment, coaches and situation, so I just signed.”
Summing up his experience with the Patriots: “It’s been great so far. The guys are first-class; it’s a first-class organization. We practice hard. There are a lot of things I like to do, the way they study, I just like it.”
What makes a top special-teams player: “Just be decisive out there on the field, playing fast and physical, and being a smart player making high-speed decisions.”
Summing up his football journey: “It’s just always the way I imagined it. I’ve had fun all along the way. As long as I’m playing football, I’m having fun, being around guys that love to do it as well. Making it to this point, with a chance to play for a team that’s been successful, is a great opportunity.”