New Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman couldn't pass on Notre Dame a second time

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Seventeen winters ago, Marcus Freeman was the one who got away.

On Friday, the former elite linebacker recruit who ultimately chose Ohio State over Notre Dame couldn’t pass on the Irish a second time.

Once Freeman consummates the protracted Human Resources vetting dance, he’ll be officially named the football program’s defensive coordinator, the fifth of the Brian Kelly Era and perhaps even more coveted as a coaching prospect today than he was as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect and No. 31 recruit overall nationally in the 2004 class.

The university announced in a statement early Friday evening that a deal is in place for Freeman to leave the University of Cincinnati for ND. This time he opted for the Irish over LSU, which reportedly this week offered Freeman a four-year contract at $2.5 million per season.

“As we looked into finding someone to run our defense, it was important to find the right fit for our program and Marcus and his family are just that,” Kelly said. “He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers. Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.

“The work Marcus has done elevating the programs he has been a part of speaks for itself, but equally as important is the exceptional work he has done in building relationships with his staff and players. Marcus was our top choice to become our next defensive coordinator, and we are pleased he and his family will be joining us at Notre Dame.”

The Huber Heights, Ohio, product, who turns 35 Sunday, succeeds Clark Lea. Lea left ND on Jan. 2 after four seasons — three as defensive coordinator — to become Vanderbilt’s new head coach. Like Lea, Freeman coaches linebackers.

“From the first time I ever met Marcus, I thought, ‘What a great fit he would be for Notre Dame.’” said current UC offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who was head coach Tyrone Willingham’s lead recruiter for ND in pursuit of Freeman back in 2003-04.

“From the type of person that he was to his work ethic to how competitive he was as a player and now as a coach. Maybe it was something that was meant to be from the very beginning.

“It just took a few more years to make it happen.”

Freeman’s fit from a scheme/philosophy context doesn’t mirror the Mike Elko/Lea system, but it marries with it from a recruiting standpoint. And it would have been a deal breaker had Freeman run and insisted on staying with a base 3-4.

As it is, the most noticeable difference in how Freeman called and set up his defense in 2020 and how Lea ran things at ND this past season is that Freeman had his team play a lot more man defense than the Irish did, and he was more aggressive in his calls within the scheme.

“Marcus’ philosophy starts with the fact that he’s a believer in contesting everything,” Denbrock said. “Nothing’s going to come easy. You’re going to have to earn every yard.”

Denbrock will have to deal with that firsthand Oct. 2, when the Bearcats visit Notre Dame Stadium, perhaps as a Top 10 team.

“You’re going to have to find a way to take advantage of what they do,” Denbrock said. “And then he’s multiple enough in the things that he does that he does a great job of kind of keeping you off-balance as a play caller.

“Whether that’s a well-timed blitz. Whether that’s dropping eight into coverage. And the variations and the things that he can do within the scheme that he runs just causes you a lot of prep time and a lot of adjustments.”

Both paths proved successful. Lea led Notre Dame (10-2) to three consecutive top 15 finishes in scoring defense for only the fourth time since World War II and first time since 1969-71. And that’s with a third of the schedule being played against teams that finished in the top 10 in scoring offense.

New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (right) and ND cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens (left) share a moment after their college teams squared off in 2006, a 37-7 Ohio State win over Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, after Freeman’s first season at UC (2017) and finishing 94th in scoring defense, Cincinnati improved to ninth nationally in one year.

The Bearcats were 24th in scoring D in 2018 and eighth this season. They were 13th in total defense, 14th in rushing defense and third in pass-efficiency defense, behind only Northwestern and Louisiana.

On the recruiting front, Cincinnati finished highest among Group of Five schools at 34th overall in the 2021 Rivals team recruiting rankings, four spots higher than Florida State. The early 2022 snapshot has the Bearcats sixth, with Freeman a big part of both talent surges.

“Just an incredible relationship builder with players,” Denbrock said of Freeman on the recruiting trail. “Constantly working at it. Diligent. Detailed. Great with them in conversations, whether that’s in the world we live in now — Zoom calls.

“Great at digging into the family dynamic and making sure he’s having the conversations with the decision-makers in the recruiting process. And based on my experience with him here at Cincinnati, he is great at selling what the strong points of Cincinnati are and what it could do for the young men that we’re recruiting.

“I can only imagine what that would look like if he had Notre Dame in his back pocket when he walked into some of these schools.”

Walking into Notre Dame, he’ll have a familiar face in the defensive meeting room. Not only did cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and Freeman work together at Cincinnati in 2018-19, they were teammates at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio.

“Here’s the neatest thing,” said Jay Minton, their head coach at Wayne, now coaching tight ends at the University of Dayton. “Those guys have been great players. Now they’re great coaches and all that. But if you meet each one of their families, they’re great dads, great husbands, all the kind of stuff.

“And that’s what really excites you. What great leaders they are. It’s just the responsibility that they take on. Marcus has an Army of kids. So that’s what’s really exciting, to see those guys, how they’ve grown up and what they’ve become.”

Neither had thought much about coaching until medical conditions truncated their respective NFL careers. With All-America cornerback Mickens, it was a knee injury. With Freeman, it was an enlarged heart uncovered during a physical exam with Indianapolis Colts team doctors roughly a year after being drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Bears in the 2009 NFL Draft.

“I just remember the disappointment,” Minton said. “Football was that young man’s life. But he took that disappointment and put it into something special and something positive.”

Freeman retired officially May 1, 2010, and began his coaching career that fall as a graduate assistant at his alma mater. His current boss at UC, Luke Fickell, was OSU’s co-defensive coordinator at the time.

Fickell is also the man who convinced Freeman to choose the Buckeyes over the Irish 17 years ago.

“I loved Notre Dame absolutely,” Freeman told the Tribune in an interview last July for a story on Mickens. “I didn’t officially visit, but I went up there multiple times. I loved it. If I didn’t go to Ohio State, that’s for sure where I was going to go.”

From Ohio State, Freeman spent two seasons at Kent State and four at Purdue before being reunited with Fickell at Cincinnati the past four.

He may not stay long at Notre Dame. Freeman wants to be a head coach, and if his star keeps rising, he’ll get a chance. Soon.

“His coaching career is like his playing career, really,” Minton said. “He just has been tenacious about it — and just his growth. Every year this kid’s growing and growing and getting better and better.

“And it’s just like when he was an eighth-grader, my second year at Wayne, and my daughter pointed him out to me as he was walking to a pond to go fishing. She said, ‘Dad that’s Marcus Freeman.’

“And I said, ‘OK, who’s Marcus Freeman?’

“She said, ‘Dad, he’s supposed to be a really good football player. You better get to know him.’

“And he was a roly-poly kid. And I thought, ‘Man, is that kid even going to play for us? He doesn’t even look like it.’

“Well lo and behold, wow. Every year working in the weight room — first one in, last one out. Man, he just worked himself. You knew then he was going to do some great things.

“He’s one of those kids who gives you a big, old smile. And I don’t want to say that he owns you, but he owns you. That’s just his personality. But when it’s time to coach and teach, now he can get down after it.

“I’ll tell you, he is something else.”

Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (pictured) teamed up with ND cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens at UC and during their playing days in high school.
Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (pictured) teamed up with ND cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens at UC and during their playing days in high school.

2010: Ohio State - Graduate Assistant

2011-12: Kent State - Linebackers

2013-15: Purdue - Linebackers

2016: Purdue - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers

2017-20: Cincinnati - Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers

2021-: Notre Dame - Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers