Freedom sets lofty goal: A sack total that puts him among Husker greats
Freedom Akinmoladun has flown under the radar during much of his Nebraska football career.
Too far under the radar at times, probably.
But get this: The Husker senior defensive end nevertheless is within reach of entering the school’s all-time top 10 for sacks in a career.
It’s his goal to get there in 2018.
It’s partly what drives him during this month’s rigorous conditioning sessions at Memorial Stadium.
“Truthfully, it would be kind of like a steppingstone for me,” said Akinmoladun, who has 9½ sacks in 29 starts over three seasons, 7½ shy of tying Barry Turner (2005-09) for 10th on the career list.
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Akinmoladun is passionate about playing in the NFL. He’s probably a long shot for that at this point. But seven-plus sacks in his final season at Nebraska obviously would help that cause as well as his team’s chances of making significant improvement on last season’s 4-8 record.
What’s more, Akinmoladun enjoying a breakout season of such a high magnitude would enhance his status as a role model for younger brother Justice Akinmoladun, a 5-11, 250-pound lineman at Grandview (Missouri) High School, where Freedom was a tight end and defensive end.
Freedom began his college career at tight end, then made the switch to defense in 2014 near the end of his redshirt season. He made 4½ sacks in 2015, four in 2016 and one last season as the Huskers finished with just 14 as a team to rank 119th nationally.
“Hopefully, Justice understands the time and dedication that I put into this sport,” Freedom Akinmoladun said Tuesday. “It’s no joke. You can’t expect to play (the video game) Fortnite all the time and then go on the field and just play at a high level. It takes a lot more dedication than that.”
He said he strives daily to perfect his craft, though that challenge is immense. Think about it: He’s in the process of learning his third defense at Nebraska.
“Most people would think, well, that’s a lot,” he said. “It is a lot going from a 4-3 to Coach (Bob) Diaco’s 3-4 defense last season to Coach (Erik) Chinander’s defense. It’s a lot to take in. But it helps me in a way. I do have a passion to go to the next level, and I now understand a 4-3 defensive end’s mentality as well as a 3-4 end’s mentality.”
No matter the system, playing excellent defense requires relentless effort and attention to detail. It means aggressively chasing the ball and gang tackling. It requires an attack mentality -- more so for linemen in Chinander’s system than in Diaco’s, Akinmoladun said.
“That’s why coach Chin always talks about getting sacks,” he said. “If the defense eats, everybody else eats. In this defense, the line really sets the tone.”
As the only senior among Nebraska’s scholarship defensive ends, Akinmoladun refers to himself as the “old head” among the group. But there’s plenty of experience at the position with juniors Khalil Davis, Carlos Davis and DaiShon Neal in the fold as well as experienced sophomores Deontre Thomas and Ben Stille.
Chinander likes all the experience up front. But he doesn’t like the sack total from last season, or the number of tackles for loss (44, 129th nationally), or opponents’ third-down conversion rate (43.1, 99th), or the amount of turnovers forced (only 12).
“Turnovers is king for me,” Chinander has said.
Said Akinmoladun: “Everybody realizes that where we were before was not enough. We all know we have another gear. All of our coaching staff sees it, especially (strength coach) Zach Duval. Every time we run, every time we lift, he tells us we need to do more. He tells us we need to try harder. We know that at the end of the day, we’re not practicing to go against some random players. We’re practicing to go against werewolves. That’s our mindset every single day.”
Akinmoladun singles out no opponent on the 2018 schedule; every team is threat, he said. That’s the attitude Nebraska should retain from last season, when it lost on its home field to Northern Illinois in mid-September before ending the season with six losses in the last seven games. The Huskers gave up 50-plus points in four of those games.
Chinander said he saw a team zapped of passion for the game, perhaps beat down by the debilitating defeats.
“Last year was more of a wake-up call to me,” Akinmoladun said. “The year before, we had a good season (9-4). We all felt confident. We had a new defensive coordinator. Then the results of last season happened. Everybody was looking upon it like, ‘What did we do wrong? How can we change it?’ Because that season affected people’s careers -- coaches’ careers, players’ careers.”
The culture had to change, Akinmoladun said.
“Losing could no longer be accepted ever again,” he said.
Back in 2013, Akinmoladun couldn’t have envisioned being part of two losing seasons at Nebraska. He verbally committed to the Huskers on the Fourth of July in 2013, in part because his mother, Sherryee Akinmoladun, was born on a July 4 in Omaha.
“I wanted to make it really special for her because she’s a huge influence in my life, and also because I’m Freedom, it’s the Fourth of July, so I thought it would be one of those cool things for me and my career at Nebraska,” he said.
He can think of another thing that would be cool for his career -- a resounding finish, including a sack total that would raise everyone’s eyebrows.