Josh Freeman growing up before our eyes

Josh Freeman, now in his second season in Tampa Bay, is carrying himself as a leader. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

TAMPA, Fla. -- From his spot in the back of meeting rooms and on the team bus and team plane last season, Sammie Stroughter usually had a very close view of fellow rookie Josh Freeman.

“The best way to put it is that Josh was in the passenger’s seat last year,’’ said Stroughter, a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “He was getting chauffeured around. He never said much of anything, and he usually had this look on his face like he was lost or something.’’

That’s why Stroughter and the rest of the Bucs are stunned by what they see this year.

“When he walks into the locker room now, you can just feel his presence,’’ Stroughter said. “He knows it’s his time.’’

Freeman’s time actually started the second half of last season when the Bucs started playing him. Like most rookie quarterbacks, he struggled. Oh, he had a few bright spots, but most of them were overshadowed by the team's 3-13 record.

Now, the Bucs are 1-0 heading into Sunday’s game at Carolina. Now, there is hope for a franchise, and it’s mostly because of the franchise quarterback.

“He’s growing up,’’ coach Raheem Morris said Wednesday.

Yes, Freeman is growing up before our eyes. At 6-foot-6, he’s hard to miss and it’s even more difficult to overlook him now that he’s no longer slouched in the passenger’s seat.

“It’s like somebody threw him the keys and said: 'It’s your car,' ’’ Stroughter said. “He’s driving now, and he’s not letting go of the wheel.’’

We might end up pointing to this season’s opener as the moment Freeman grabbed the wheel. After a shaky start by Freeman, the Bucs fell behind Cleveland, 14-3. Last year, it was virtually impossible for Tampa Bay’s offense to overcome any deficit, no matter who played quarterback. But Freeman threw for two touchdowns, leading the Bucs to a 17-14 victory that just might be the start of something big.

At One Buccaneer Place all offseason, people raved about how hard Freeman, 22, worked. He spent countless hours studying film, meeting with the coaches and working out with a young crew of receivers. People in the building could see Freeman growing up. Now, Freeman said he sees everything differently.

“Understanding the offense,’’ Freeman said. “Understanding the alerts. Understanding really taking what the defense is giving you and not trying to force too much.’’

Even with a fractured right thumb, Freeman feels comfortable on the field. The Bucs dumped disgruntled receiver Antonio Bryant, who made negative comments about Freeman and the coaching staff, immediately after last season. With visions of Stroughter as a perfect fit as slot receiver, the Bucs drafted wide receivers Arrelious Benn (second round) and Mike Williams (fourth round). They also signed speedster Micheal Spurlock, who caught one of the two touchdown passes against Cleveland.

“We have some guys who can stretch the field and can make things happen when you throw the ball out there,’’ Freeman said.

It’s pretty obvious Freeman has quickly developed chemistry with his receivers. But it goes way beyond the receivers. Freeman has earned the respect of his teammates, who elected him one of the five captains just before the start of the season.

“The thing that’s stood out most just over the last few months about Josh is that he’s the hardest critic on himself,’’ Stroughter said. “He expects the best and, now, he’s letting other people know he expects the best out of them. If you’re supposed to be somewhere and you’re not, he’s stepping forward and letting you know.’’

In a sign that perhaps he's seeing the field better or that he is assuming more of a leadership role, Freeman, who might have only changed four calls at the line last season, made a whole bunch of checks in the Cleveland game.

“He kept putting us in position to make plays,’’ Stroughter said.

One game doesn’t make a season, and Freeman is sure to still have some downs along with the ups. But there were smiles in Tampa Bay’s locker room this week, and that’s largely because the Bucs believe they have the right guy at quarterback.

“All you can do is smile and say, “Man, this is going to be great,’’ Stroughter said. “Once it all starts clicking, it’s going to be something to see, and it’s going to be beautiful.’’