Marcus Freeman 'right man for the job' say former Notre Dame players on the West Coast

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman gathers team together during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

COSTA MESA, Calif. — When news began to circulate this past December that then 35-year-old Marcus Freeman would be the next head football coach at Notre Dame, Drue Tranquill scrolled through his phone’s contact list.  

Freeman’s number was still there.  

So, Tranquill — now entering his fourth season as a linebacker with the Los Angeles Chargers — shot Freeman a congratulatory text, not expecting to hear back from the defensive coordinator promoted after just a year in South Bend.  

Freeman, in the middle of a whirlwind of national spotlight and new responsibility, took the time to respond. 

Color Tranquill — who played five seasons under Freeman predecessor Brian Kelly, who left after the 2021 regular season to take the LSU job — impressed. It wasn’t the first time.

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When Tranquill was a star defender and running back at Carroll High School near Fort Wayne, Ind., Freeman came calling as the linebackers coach at Purdue. 

"I just remember him being a super personable guy," Tranquill said recently from Chargers off-season camp. "A guy who was a former player himself and understands the grind of what it is to be a player in college and then in the pros. So, I think he's a great fit." 

Linebacker Drue Tranquill celebrates after Notre Dame beat rival USC to cap a 12-0 regular season in 2018.

Tranquill ultimately chose Notre Dame where he overcame multiple knee injuries to become a fourth-round NFL draft pick. 

Southern California has become a common landing spot for Notre Dame players the past decade. Former Irish All-America linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o was picked by the then San Diego Chargers in 2013. Defensive lineman Jerry Tillery was the Chargers' first-round pick in 2018 (28th overall).  

Former Irish running back Kyren Williams was a fifth-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams this year, joining former Irish teammate Ben Skowronek, who was a 2021 seventh-round selection by the Rams and caught two passes for 12 yards in their Super Bowl victory in February. 

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Skowronek, another Fort Wayne native who was a graduate transfer from Northwestern, never crossed paths with Freeman at Notre Dame as Freeman arrived in 2021 from Cincinnati.  

Freeman reached out to the Super Bowl-winning receiver to have dinner in Los Angeles. 

"When you talk to him, everything's authentic, and that's what I like about him the most," Skowronek said. "All the players love him. The recruits obviously love him, so I'm excited to see where he takes his program." 

Skowronek made a name for himself as a special teams force while contributing on offense with 11 catches for 133 yards. 

Dec 13, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Ben Skowronek (18) reacts during the second half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

"It's crazy, being a rookie and winning the Super Bowl," Skowronek said. "All that experience, I think it's going to help me so much throughout my whole career. It was just a whirlwind from Week One to the Super Bowl." 

Safety Alohi Gilman is another recent Kelly product who found himself on the West Coast as a 2019 pick of the Chargers.  

Gilman met Freeman for the first time during Notre Dame’s Pro Day back in March. Before that he hadn't been back to campus in nearly two years. 

"Seems like a player's coach," Gilman said. "The players seem to have great relationships with him." 

Alohi GilmanSafety Alohi Gilman played his last game in a Notre Dame uniform in Saturday’s Camping World Bowl. On Monday night, Gilman declared for the NFL Draft.

The fact that Freeman opened the facility doors to former players this past spring isn’t lost on Skowronek, Gilman and Tranquill. Embracing the program’s tradition as a tool for securing its future seems like a logical path to Tranquill. 

"It really speaks to his humility in terms of wanting to understand what previous experience is like, and how he can better it for his student-athletes now," Tranquill said. "So, I think it's great." 

Freeman has made it clear he wants former players to advise current players and/or help them with recruiting. Numerous Notre Dame legends were routinely spotted at Irish spring practices and functions, including Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.  

Gilman liked what he saw on his trip to South Bend.  

"I think building that camaraderie, building that brand for Notre Dame (alumni), as well as current players, is only going to make us stronger," Gilman said. "So, I think it's exciting. I'm rooting for him, I told him, 'I'm on the Freeman train.' "