Marcus Freeman brings five-star recruiting potential as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame losing Clark Lea and adding Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator lifted Sebastian Cheeks from disheartened to thrilled in short order.

Evanston (Ill.) Township’s Cheeks, a four-star linebacker in the 2022 recruiting class, thought the Irish lost a defensive mastermind in Lea. He connected with Lea and felt like a top recruiting target after landing a scholarship offer as a rover last July. Then Lea departed for the head coaching job at Vanderbilt earlier this month.

Cheeks’ disappointment subsided once Notre Dame announced Lea’s replacement on Friday. As the defensive coordinator the University of Cincinnati, Freeman started courting Cheeks in November and forged a close relationship with him.

So much so that they exchanged pleasantries after reports of Freeman’s hiring surfaced.

“He is going to be all over me,” said Cheeks on what he gleaned from his conversation with Freeman.

And Freeman is going to be all over several other top recruits. At least that’s the prevailing sentiment in the recruiting world.

“(Irish head coach) Brian Kelly hit a home run with this one. It’s a no-brainer,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “Marcus Freeman was the most heavily sought after defensive coordinator in the country, and Notre Dame got him. So it’s like landing a five-star recruit, getting Freeman.

“Marcus Freeman should bring that five-star mentality to Notre Dame’s defense. They have a lot of trouble with five-star defensive players. They don’t have too many of them. He’s a guy who could land five-star players.”

Freeman inherits a favorable situation. The Irish boast a 43-8 record across its last four seasons and made the College Football Playoff in two of the last three. Lea left him with a defense that ranked among the top 25 nationally in most of the major statistical categories.

With Notre Dame’s recent success, Freeman could capitalize on the recruiting trail.

“The Notre Dame logo already commands respect and intrigue,” said Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports. “So Marcus is walking into a situation where the school does half the job itself. He just has to continue being himself. He’s going to be super successful recruiting at Notre Dame.”

With the Bearcats, Freeman helped assemble the No. 1 recruiting class among Group of Five programs the last two cycles. He attracted recruits like Jaheim Thomas, an outside linebacker in the 2020 class. Thomas signed with Cincinnati despite holding offers from major Power Five programs, including Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame and Michigan.

Still, Freeman almost exclusively pursued recruits that held a three-star rating or lower. A good chunk of them were from the Midwest, too. With the Irish, Freeman can expand his recruiting net nationally and chase a lot more four- and five-star recruits.

“Notre Dame replaces one of the nicest guys in college football with one of the nicest guys in college football,” Wiltfong said. “You are not going to find two better people than Marcus Freeman and Clark Lea.

“When you talk to Freeman, you know you are talking to a leader of men. You get that sense that this is a guy you want to follow, be around and learn from.”

College football players and high school recruits can relate to the 35-year-old Freeman. He was a three-year starter at linebacker for Ohio State before selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft via the Chicago Bears.

“He’s a young guy and is down-to-earth,” Cheeks said. “All of our conversations are always real. But one thing he loves to do is talk ball. He doesn’t sugar coat too much. He brings a ton of energy, because he’s a young coach. He’s been through it just like many of us players. So being able to get that connection with him from player to connection.”

Cheeks said he likes the personalities of Freeman and Lea, but he couldn’t help but notice the differences. While Freeman generally challenges his players emotionally with his high energy, Lea challenges his players mentally with his calm, cerebral nature.

Former Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah told reporters last month that Lea hardly ever yelled at him during his collegiate career.

“What coach Freeman is going to bring to the Notre Dame defense is going to be interesting, to say the least,” Cheeks said. “He’s going to bring a whole different energy to the program. That’s something that Notre Dame needs. They need that next-level energy.”

Those affiliated with the Irish who don’t know Freeman like Cheeks will learn about his personality soon. Freeman’s hiring will not be effective until Notre Dame concludes its standard employment process.

Until then, Freeman will be known for his accomplishments with the Bearcats. They did not have a defensive starter this season finish with a four- or five-star rating on 247Sports and Rivals in their recruiting cycles. Yet nationally, Cincinnati ranked No. 3 in pass-efficiency defense, No. 8 in scoring defense, No. 13 in total defense and No. 14 in run defense.

“I think he’s going to take us right back to the playoff next year,” said Nolan Ziegler, a linebacker from Grand Rapids (Mich.) Catholic Central who is verbally committed to Notre Dame’s 2022 class. “He does a great job of what he gets from his players and talent level. Watching their defense, especially against that (Peach Bowl) game against Georgia, they did a pretty good job. He’s going to fit in well.”

Once Freeman officially joins the Irish, he has an opportunity to immediately improve the recruiting prowess of their coaching staff. Kelly and Freeman will need to fill at least one assistant coaching vacancy. Former Notre Dame defensive backs coach Terry Joseph recently took a similar role at the University of Texas.

Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston could also leave. The FootballScoop Report named Elston as a candidate for Purdue’s opening at defensive coordinator. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens should be expected to stay at Notre Dame. He served in the same role under Freeman at Cincinnati before being hired by the Irish last season. Freeman will operate as linebackers coach.

Beyond helping sign All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, Joseph left more to be desired as a recruiter at Notre Dame. The Irish only have four scholarship safeties on the current roster. They so badly needed a strong safety last season that they had to move an undersized Shaun Crawford (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) to the position from cornerback.

Losing Elston means Notre Dame would have to replace one of its best recruiters. In his 11 years with the program, Elston helped sign several key contributors on the defensive line and several four-star recruits at various positions. He’s credited for bringing five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith to the Irish.

“They’ve got to get guys in with the mindset of going after five-star players, impact players,” said Lemming on Freeman’s defensive staff. “That’s the only way you are going to beat Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia or Clemson on a consistent basis.”

Recruiting more players like Cheeks could boost Notre Dame’s defense from great to elite. Rivals ranks the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Cheeks as its No. 13 outside linebacker and No. 105 overall player in the class, while 247Sports pegs him No. 10 at the same position and No. 137 overall.

Hiring Freeman may have added another dimensional to the Irish recruiting operation. Notre Dame securing Cheeks’ verbal commitment over Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan and others would be an impressive start.

“Coach Freeman getting hired is huge for the program, and it’s huge for myself,” Cheeks said. “To bring in a guy like coach Freeman, he knows so much about the game. Him recruiting me out in Cincinnati was already a start to our relationship. We are already very close.

“When he was at Cincinnati, he came after me so hard. He keyed in on me specifically for where he wanted to see me in his defense. When he got to Notre Dame, we had instant communication. He told me that he’s going to follow up with me coming up next week.

“It’s a huge hire for ND and a lot of guys like myself who are getting recruited hard not only by the program, but also coach Freeman.”

Former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (right) has been busy this past month building a future for himself and the Notre Dame defense.