Inside Recruiting: Ramifications of Freeman's hiring at Notre Dame and Kelly's departure

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, soon to be announced as ND's head coach, cheers on the team during Notre Dame Fall Camp on Saturday, August 7, 2021, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

Editor's Note: This rendition of our recurring Inside Recruiting feature focuses on the big-picture implications of Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly's departure to LSU and the promotion of Marcus Freeman to Irish head coach. The following are excerpts from our conversation with 247Sports national director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong from ND Insider's Pod of Gold podcast. You can listen to it in its entirety here.

Q: What do you think the recruiting ramifications are with Marcus Freeman becoming Notre Dame’s head coach?

Wiltfong: "I think you’re what you’re going to see now, Notre Dame has one of the more visible head coaches on the recruiting trail, moving forward. He’s obviously an electric recruiter. He’s had his hands on a lot of these guys committed to a Notre Dame class ranked No. 5 nationally.

"Then you look at 2023, and they’re ranked No. 2 early in the 247Sports recruiting rankings. I mean, Notre Dame’s last head coach was a closer. He’d come in at the end, work that ninth inning and help try and secure some commitments.

"And honestly, Brian Kelly would do what was asked of him. If Marcus Freeman would say, ‘Hey, we need to get you on the phone with so-and-so on Tuesday, Brian Kelly was down for that. It just wasn’t in his mindset.

"I think Marcus Freeman’s mindset is going to be, ‘Get players. Get players. Get players. Get players. How can we get the best players to help us win a national championship?' And we’ve talked about this before: Notre Dame is just trying to find another win or two to win a national championship.

"And from a recruiting standpoint, Marcus Freeman can be the difference in two or three recruitments a year. So, if you add that up over four years, that’s eight to 12 players that can help you get another win or two on the roster.

"So, from a recruiting standpoint, you’re obviously excited that your head coach is going to provide backup. I’m not saying Brian Kelly didn’t try to provide backup and do what his coaches asked him to do, but Tom Rees, when he’s recruiting these elite quarterbacks in 2023, his head coach is going to be right beside him trying to land Dante Moore or whoever they’re really pushing for.

"He’ll help Lance Taylor secure another coveted running back. And so I think recruiting just got a hell of a lot more important for the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame."

► Related:Hansen: ND promoting Marcus Freeman is a gamble; not hiring him was more of one

► More:Why Notre Dame's recruits support Marcus Freeman as Notre Dame's next head coach

Q: Just focusing on the 2022 class, do you think Notre Dame can hold on to the rest of these 2022 guys? Do you think they can add to this class between now and the early signing period (Dec. 15-17)?

Wiltfong: "I haven’t heard any rumors of anyone decommitting that weren’t already out there prior to this. You had Devin Moore looking around for sure. And C.J. Williams has been taking visits and allowing coaches to come into his house.

"Every school has that. No school is absent to losing a recruit or two each cycle. I’m not predicting for C.J. Williams to go elsewhere. I’m just saying that’s just something that’s natural with recruiting, across the country.

"I think that Notre Dame is certainly open to adding potential difference-makers to this class. Billy Schrauth is an offensive lineman they’re in a war with, with Wisconsin, to try to lure him out of the state of Wisconsin.

"Coach Rees and some other coaches went up there Thursday and Marcus Freeman wasn’t able to go, but they got him on FaceTime. And he is expected to go up next week and try to close that one.

"Tom Loy of Irish Illustrated is reporting Notre Dame is trying to go see Xavier Nwankpa — the No. 1 safety in the top 247Sports rankings. Notre Dame was in the top three there, sitting third.

"Maybe Marcus Freeman’s hiring (makes a difference), knowing he’s going to be there for a while, whereas beforehand he was a ‘hot name’ defensive coordinator who could go be a head coach or a (defensive coordinator) somewhere else perhaps — most likely a head coach somewhere.

"Now you know he’s at Notre Dame for the majority of the career of whoever’s signing — at the very least.

"So I think they would take another difference-maker that they feel could get them over the top — whether that’s a pass rusher, an offensive lineman or certainly a quarterback."

Q: Were you surprised there weren’t more immediate decommitments and that there was such support for Marcus Freeman for the head coaching job among the recruits?

Wiltfong: "No, for two reasons. Notre Dame is one of the few schools that for a lot of the young men — once they ultimately decide they want to go to Notre Dame — it’s more than football. I mean, they want to play football at the highest level, and those are the kind of guys Notre Dame wants.

"Notre Dame is a team that can win a national championship. And Notre Dame is a place where you can achieve your goals of being a draft pick. But I think once you decide that you’re going to go to Notre Dame, you recognize all these other things that come with it that are pretty damn cool for your future quality of life as well.

"The other side of that is Brian Kelly is whatever. Good guy, good coach, won a lot of games. I enjoyed my few conversations that I had with him. He was really impressive when I sat in his office, but the (recruits') relationships are with Rees. They’re with Freeman. They’re with coach (Chris) O’Leary and Mike Elston and Lance Taylor.

"So those are the relationships that haven’t departed. They haven’t left the building. If Marcus Freeman’s not the head coach at Notre Dame, I think you would have seen (linebacker) Jaylen Sneed reopen the process, just to use one example.

"You look at Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley. He’s one of the more visible head coaches on the recruiting trail in the country, so when he leaves (to go to USC), the relationship is obviously on the move. And so it’s a little different. You saw decommitments right away, because the relationship with coach Riley was so damn strong."

Q: Hypothetically, Marcus Freeman vs. Luke Fickell vs. Matt Campbell. As recruiters, how do those guys stack up with each other?

Wiltfong: "I think Marcus Freeman is one of the more electric, genuine personalities in college football. So not many people stack up with him when you’re talking to him. I mean, it’s incredible the people skills he has in addition to the fact that he really believes in Notre Dame’s strengths.

"You guys heard (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick in his press conference, how Brian Kelly had to grow into that. Like at first it was, ‘The academic restrictions are a liability, not something that could be of value to us,’ depending on how you spin it. Or the Notre Dame players being more involved with the student body than at other institutions across the country.

"Marcus Freeman wants all that for the players. He wants to recruit players that are buying into that. He bought into it. He understands what it could mean for a young man to come to Notre Dame and really change the forecast of their life in all kinds of ways. So the way he embraces that right away and hits the ground running is why he was able to have such fast results.

"When he spoke to recruits about Notre Dame, it was genuine right away. I mean, he believes in Notre Dame and what it offers kids beyond football. And certainly with football, they’re going to be competitive as hell. And they want to win the first national title since 1988. And they’re going to go after players in that regard.

"I think Luke Fickell would have led the charge from the head coach’s position as well. I still think it would have been lightyears from what we’ve seen (with Brian Kelly). He’s not (just a) ninth-inning guy, 

"And Campbell, he’s different than those other guys, but he’s a great dude, too. Like, he’s normal. You sit down with Matt Campbell, and you’re like, ‘He’s normal.’ Matt Campbell, man, he’s just a normal dude. I like Matt Campbell. He just gives you a good vibe.

"People like Matt Campbell. You’re not going to poke around and get some bad stories about Matt Campbell."

Brian Kelly (left) is introduced as the head football coach of the LSU Tigers by athletic director Scott Woodward during a news conference at Tiger Stadium on Dec. 1, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge Brian Kelly is going to face on the recruiting trail at LSU?

Wiltfong: "I just know that the scrutiny in the SEC and the media scrutiny in the SEC is something else. The head coaches in that league right now — you have Nick Saban. Nobody watches and evaluates more film than Nick Saban.

"So whenever they’re recruiting the quarterback position or whatever position they’re recruiting, Nick Saban might be a closer when it comes to recruiting that kid, but he sure as hell knows what the board looks like and why all the time, too. Like, ‘We’re all in on this kid. He’s our No. 2 receiver on the board. He’s our No. 5 receiver on the board. X, Y, Z. Same with quarterback.’

"Their infrastructure on evaluations is second to none. So everybody says, ‘It’s easy to recruit at Alabama.’ It is in a sense, but they pick great players every year, because they evaluate them at such a high level and Nick Saban pores over the film and is very involved in that.

"And then he’s an excellent closer, too. He and Brian Kelly may have that same approach on the trail, But Nick Saban has a bunch of national championship rings in his office — the most draft picks right now, the most wins right now. And so their process of finding blue-chippers in that way works for them.

"Kirby Smart, nobody’s outworking him from a relationship standpoint. Jimbo Fisher, same thing. Sam Pittman at Arkansas, he’s visible as hell. You’ve got these schools grinding. The old LSU coach (Ed Orgeron) was very visible in recruiting. And LSU had three straight top 5 recruiting classes.

"Now, it’ll be interesting to see how LSU’s staff comes together, because we know that’s going to be where a lot of the lifting is coming from in the recruiting, in all those areas. We’ve all gotten in the weeds to nitpick Notre Dame in terms of trying to find an extra win or two.

"It’ll be interesting to see how much of the evaluation process coach Kelly is involved in down there and how much of the recruiting process he’s involved in down there, because those are wars to get kids to come play at your school down there.

"All those schools are within driving distance typically of a few of them to get those kids. So it’ll be interesting to see how that (new LSU) staff comes together.

"We all know Brian Kelly doesn’t have that much of a coaching network. All his guys at Notre Dame turned him down. Who else does he know? Tony Alford? He’s not coming. He did offer Tony Alford a job, but not coming. He knows Mike Denbrock and Chip Long? Who else does he know?"

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI