By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Grant Cook and Grant Freeman met during the recruiting process, when the Arkansas high school products considered their college choices.
Both signed with Arkansas and were roommates their first year on campus in 2007. To no one’s surprise, they became close friends over the next four years.
But Freeman faced a big decision after earning his degree in 2010. Should the lineman, who had spent nearly his entire career as a reserve, return to Arkansas for one more season? Or should he find a job and get a head start on life in the real world?
"I was like, ‘I’m going to be here, and you can’t leave me hanging out to dry,’" Cook said, recalling a conversation the two had about Freeman’s future following the 2010 Sugar Bowl. "I told him, ‘We came in together, and we’ve got to roll out together.’"
Freeman followed Cook’s advice. He stayed and the decision paid off. Freeman and Cook have been full-time starters for the first time in their careers in 2011, enjoying senior seasons that will wrap up when BCS No. 6 Arkansas (10-2) plays No. 8 Kansas State (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl next Friday.
The game will cap a lengthy journey for the two, who combined to log nine starts before 2011. But Freeman said the wait for a full-time starting job has been well worth it after Arkansas’ success this season.
"I didn’t really understand how worth it that it was going to be until we got to the season and everything started happening and I filled my role as a starter," Freeman said earlier this month. "I’m glad that I stayed and I’m glad I finished out my fifth year."
Freeman had played in 18 games the first three years of his career, earning two starts because of injuries when he was a redshirt sophomore in 2009. But the Paris native had been the forgotten man, of sorts, on an offensive line anchored by tackles DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez for much of the past two years.
Cook, a Jonesboro native, earned seven starts between 2008 and 2009 before backing up senior Wade Grayson last season. He played plenty, sharing time with Grayson. But holding down a starting job was his goal — one he accomplished — for his senior season.
"It’s a big deal. If you grow up in Arkansas, you want to be an Arkansas Razorback," Cook said. "Every senior on this offense is from Arkansas. Grant and I were a year earlier than most of these guys, but being from Arkansas and playing here is a huge deal."
They may not have been flashy or dominant, but both linemen were critical components for an offense that turned in another big season. The offensive line, as a whole, started slow. But position coach Chris Klenakis said the seniors were a big part of later successes.
"They’re blue-collar football players," Klenakis said. "They exemplify what the union stands for — to go to work every day and get better and grind. I’m real proud of what they’ve done with their hard work."
Freeman credited his good friend Cook for convincing him to stick around for 2011, admitting he would’ve regretted an early departure in hindsight. He called Cook his "best friend on the team," saying it has meant a lot he has "been with me through everything."
"We’ve been through a lot together and seen a lot of changes in the program," said Freeman, who was redshirting when Arkansas lost to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl before Petrino took over the program.
But the two didn’t want to reflect too much on the journey the past five years. There is, after all, one more game to play. Cook and Freeman will line up as starters on Arkansas’ offensive front for the last time, looking to help the Razorbacks reach the 11-win mark for just the third time in school history.
Reaching the mark would mean a lot to both.
"We’re really close," Cook said. "And it’s really important for us to go out there and win this last game together so we can always talk about that."