Marcus Freeman's defense at Notre Dame will match his aggressiveness on the recruiting trail

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — There’s a humility that runs through Marcus Freeman’s words that masks how little regard he has for maintaining the status quo.

The first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator is all for tradition, mind you. But to build upon, not to genuflect over.

To best absorb how the 35-year-old Freeman has worked through 11 spring football practices so far to upgrade an Irish defense that finished in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense in three consecutive seasons for the first time in 50 years, pay attention to how he attacks recruiting.

It’s about not accepting limits. It’s about dreaming big and having a work ethic to back it up. It’s about not only fixing what ain’t broke, but reimagining ways to make it better than it’s ever been.

“At times it can be easy to recruit at Notre Dame, because you’re Notre Dame,” Freeman said Tuesday via a Zoom call with the media. “There’s a certain group of kids that would die to come to Notre Dame.

“For us to continue to elevate and continue to try to be national champions and be able to close that gap with Alabama, we have to continue to acquire some of the best football players in the country.

“Those guys might not always be dying to come to Notre Dame. But if we understand that they’re the right fit and we do our research and they can be successful here at Notre Dame, our job is to convince them — to let these guys know what makes the University of Notre Dame special.”

Notre Dame’s burgeoning June official recruiting visitors list on defense looks a lot like its wish list. And a lot like Clemson’s, too. Especially at linebacker.

Already there are two four-star commitments at that position in the current 2022 cycle — Michigan prep standouts Nolan Ziegler and Josh Burnham. It’s hardly inconceivable that the Irish could add three top 100-caliber linebackers in Jaylen Sneed, Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Sebastian Cheeks in the coming weeks and have to turn similarly pedigreed prospects away.

“We’re going to continue to try to be the most aggressive and hardest working recruiting staff in the country,” Freeman said. “That’s a goal of mine and that’s a philosophy of mine. Let’s, one, outwork everybody in the country. That’s in terms of evaluations. That’s in terms of developing relationships.”

Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (right) greets linebacker Bo Bauer at Tuesday's Irish football spring practice.

The message translates well into the evolution of Notre Dame’s current crop of linebackers, now sans unanimous All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a presumptive NFL first-round draft pick in a little more than a week, and Colorado transfer Jack Lamb.

Through player soundbites and regularly released 180-second clumps of practice footage from Notre Dame’s sports information office, the impression is that the linebackers — and the entire defense for that matter — will rely less on being in the perfect alignment pre-snap and more on instincts and athleticism than under Freeman’s predecessor, Clark Lea.

It’s not that the Irish won’t play chess with their defense. But with multiple looks up front and lots of movement to disguise coverages and intent, it’s less about having all the right answers ready to counter an opposing offense and more about presenting that offense with perplexing questions.

“Our whole philosophy is front multiplicity, coverage consistency,” Freeman said.

One notable carryover from Lea, now the head coach at Vanderbilt, is the concept that the Irish can thrive rotating in fresh bodies at the three linebacker spots.

Conceptually, those linebackers will play differently under Freeman, particularly the rover — a position Mike Elko and Lea brought with them from Wake Forest in the post-Brian VanGorder rebuild.

Part safety and part linebacker when Drue Tranquill, Asmar Bilal and Owusu-Koramoah manned it, the position in Freeman’s scheme becomes more of a traditional strongside linebacker.

Junior Jack Kiser and converted safety Isaiah Pryor have been splitting spring reps there. Senior Paul Moala, still recovering from an October Achilles tendon tear, and June-arriving Prince Collie will look to get involved in fall camp.

For now Kiser is thriving. On Saturday, the former Indiana Mr. Football and class valedictorian at Pioneer High mixed in a pick-6 and a sack with a handful of tackles in ND’s intrasquad scrimmage.

“Jack is an extremely intelligent individual,” Freeman said. “He works and works and works and studies. He’s athletic. He’s physical. He makes a lot of plays.

“And so he’s done a great job. We’re trying to move that rover around, so you don’t always know where he’s going to be aligned. But at the end of the day, the guy has to be a disruptive edge-setter and a guy that can play in coverage.”

Incumbent middle linebacker Drew White has missed most of spring practice with an ankle injury, but Freeman loves his leadership. Others like Bo Bauer, JD Bertrand, Shayne Simon and Marist Liufau have all been cross-training at multiple positions.

“As we get into fall, we’ll start with the best three linebackers and put them on the field,” Freeman said.

“I think the development of all those linebackers,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, “has been a little bit across the board different in the sense of with the new scheme, you get a chance to see some of the traits that you hadn’t seen before. And these guys are very active.

“ I would say all of them have had impact and have really made great strides. I know they’re excited to play in this type of defense.”

And that wasn’t necessarily a given.

Lea’s departure in January after four years with the Irish, the last three as defensive coordinator, was a jolt for many of the current players and recruits alike.

Freeman came in committed to continuity, but only to a point, after producing three straight defenses that finished in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, with top 10 finishes in both 2018 and 2020.

“What Clark Lea and Mike Elko did before I got in this chair was unbelievable,” Freeman said. “They set a standard for Notre Dame’s defense, and it was my job to come in here and uphold that standard.

“I make sure (the players) understand every time I stand in front of the room, it’s not because of any scheme that I brought here. It’s because of the way we play, the effort and attitude, the way we defeat blocks, the way we tackle and the way we disrupt the ball.

“That will be the reason we have success. We’re going to do the scheme that I’m most comfortable with and they’ve all bought in, but, hopefully, they would all tell you it isn’t the scheme as much as the demands of the way you play the game, the standard of defense that they’ve already possessed.”

“Jack is an extremely intelligent individual. He works and works and works and studies. He’s athletic. He’s physical. He makes a lot of plays.’’ ND defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman of junior rover Jack Kiser

Junior Jack Kiser (24) has adapted well to Irish defensive coordinator’s modified rover position this spring.

“Jack is an extremely intelligent individual. He works and works and works and studies. He's athletic. He's physical. He makes a lot of plays.''

ND defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman of junior rover Jack Kiser