His life in a blur, Marcus Freeman maintains a clear vision for building on Notre Dame's success
SOUTH BEND — Roughly a month ago, Marcus Freeman sat in Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s office, knowing he’d have a profound career decision to make.
Or so he thought.
In what was framed as a job interview for one of the most coveted ascending defensive coordinators in college football, Kelly instead turned it into a recruiting pitch — to Mrs. Freeman.
“I’ll tell you this, after one conversation I knew coach Kelly was a good recruiter,” said 35-year-old Marcus Freeman, who ultimately took the ND job on Jan. 8 instead of an offer from LSU as well as the comfort of staying at the University of Cincinnati for a fifth season.
“And it was funny, having my wife in his office, I think after the first five minutes the first question was: ‘Am I being interviewed or is my wife being interviewed?’”
After a few minutes Marcus Freeman was truly intrigued and Joanna Freeman was sold. Which, in turn, meant Marcus Freeman was sold.
It’s been a blur ever since.
A magnificently wondrous blur as far as Freeman is concerned, but with a decidedly distinguishable ambition on the recruiting trail and equally clear vision for the direction he wants to steer the current defensive roster once spring practice opens in late March or early April.
“To have a chance to be part of coach Kelly’s staff, to be a part of this program at the University of Notre Dame is an opportunity you can’t pass up. You just can’t,” Freeman said Wednesday during his first Zoom call with the ND media. “And every day that I’m here I realize more and more why this place is so special. It’s very unique. It’s top of the line in everything we do.”
Freeman replaces Clark Lea, now roughly a month into his new job as Vanderbilt’s coach, but not all of the elements of Lea’s defense that produced three top 15 finishes nationally in scoring defense in each of Lea’s three seasons coordinating it.
The rover will still be the rover in Freeman’s scheme, the viper end still the viper end, but the “buck” linebacker will become the “Will” linebacker. Now how those pieces line up, move and flow is up for discussion.
“In terms of recruiting to their scheme, my scheme — it’s going to be our scheme,” Freeman said. “I am big on, ‘Let’s get the best players we can find, and we can tailor our scheme around those guys.’
“That’s the same thing I’m doing now with the staff. I’m not coming in here, dropping a book and saying. ‘This is what we’re going to do.’
“Let’s evaluate our guys. Let’s evaluate the best players on our defense and put them in position to be successful. That’s how I’ve always been. What are his positive traits? What is it that he does well? Let’s make sure we tailor our defense around those strengths.”
Freeman’s strength in recruiting hasn’t been difficult to track. Already he and defensive line coach Mike Elston wrestled four-star defensive end Tyson Ford away from Oklahoma and coaxed a verbal commitment to the Irish on Jan. 18.
The 6-foot-6, 245-pound St. Louis product is rated as the No. 64 player overall nationally regardless of position, per Rivals.com, in the 2022 recruiting class. Even if you count Daelin Hayes, who Rivals projected as a linebacker, Notre Dame has landed only five other defensive ends in the first 20 classes of the Rivals Era (2002-2021) ranked higher than Ford:
Victor Abiamiri (No. 23 in 2003), Ethan Johnson (No. 32 in 2008) and Ishaq Williams (No. 16), Stephon Tuitt (No. 22) and Aaron Lynch (No. 28) all in 2011.
And Ford is hardly an outlier when it comes to recruiting targets in the 2022 cycle. Freeman has been aggressive in extending offers to elite defensive players at other positions and there’s been a deluge of mutual interest.
“I’m finding out every day how special this place is,” Freeman said. “And I say that, because when you’re recruiting at Notre Dame, it’s unique in terms of you can get every player in the country to answer your phone call or every player in the country to return your call.
“Because they respect the brand, they respect the University of Notre Dame.
“It’s been unique in that way, but we have to find the guys that fit this place, because it’s what’s best for us and what’s best for them. And so I’m continuing to learn every day what that student-athlete is like, because it is a very unique individual.”
Freeman, once upon a time — actually in the 2004 recruiting cycle — was just such an individual. The No. 31 player overall and No. 4 inside linebacker prospect ended up choosing Ohio State over the Irish and head coach Tyrone Willingham.
“We have such a unique brand and program to sell,” Freeman said. “In terms of the things I’ve been telling recruits: ‘Anything you want in any program that’s offered you, you can achieve here, plus more. You’ve got a chance to win a national championship.’”
Freeman likes what he’s seen on film of the Notre Dame defensive personnel as well as his interactions on FaceTime with them and finally this week in person as spring semester, in-person classes started Wednesday.
“Notre Dame’s defense has been good for many, many years. You’ve got to be a crazy person to come in and say we’re going to change what you’ve done,” Freeman said. “ Ultimately all I care about is putting our guys in the position to have success and play fast.
“We have some of the best players in the country. That’s what I’m excited about. And so I’m excited to watch these guys go play. My job is don’t confuse them. Give them a chance to line up and put their hand in the ground and give them a chance to play fast.”
Luke Fickell, Cincinnati’s head coach and man whose career path has crossed Freeman’s at other times, is a big coaching influence on just how to accomplish that, but so is Freeman’s head coach when he played at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, as well as Darrell Hazell and Jon Heacock from Freeman’s time at Kent State and Purdue.
“Scheme-wise but also philosophy-wise, how you go about work every day,” Freeman said.
“Every day your mentality when you come into the office. And also how you impact young people. That, to me, is more important than anything.
“I told some of these (ND) seniors that I met with, ‘I don’t care if I’m with you for one year. I hope you’re better for the time we spent together over the next six months.’ And that’s my job ultimately is to serve.
“Serve not being a passive word, but in terms of you are better because of the time we spent together and you’re close to reaching those goals that we ultimately have.”