Analysis: Inside the evolution of Marcus Freeman's defensive scheme at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame defenders, such as linebacker Bo Bauer (left), have embraced first-year Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and his new philosophy.

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman’s vision for the Notre Dame defense, the one that helped the Irish climb to No. 1 in Rivals team recruiting rankings in the current cycle on Sunday and coaxed safety Houston Griffith into a transfer portal U-turn in January, is evolving.

In practical terms more than theory.

And Griffith, a senior and the highest-rated member of his 2018 recruiting class, is having all of it.

“It’s exciting,” he said Tuesday after practice No. 4 of training camp. “We were able to just learn the defense through February, March and April. And now, we’re able to fine-tune the small details. Now we’re going out there executing the play with high effort and just playing fast. ... 

“The whole winter I was just trying to push myself. The whole transfer portal thing, that’s in the past. I’m here and I came back for business. It's a business year, and I’m trying to go out and ball out and show all my talent.” 

The 6-foot, 202-pound Griffith and fellow senior safety DJ Brown (6-0, 200) have shown enough since last spring to give ND’s first-year defensive coordinator Freeman the confidence that he can move All-America junior safety Kyle Hamilton around the defensive formation to be more disruptive.

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That’s opposed to always planting Hamilton deep in the defensive backfield to erase mistakes and limitations of those around the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder.

“That’s the greatest weapon we have is that you can use him in so many different ways,” Freeman said Tuesday. “When you have those types of athletes — like (former Irish All-America linebacker) Jeremiah Owusu (Koramoah), like a Kyle Hamilton — they can do so many different things with their tools. It’s one of the greatest things you can have as defensive coordinator.”

Irish All-America safety Kyle Hamilton (14) and three teammates are making their mark in a crowded and competitive Notre Dame football podcast market.

And something, for instance, Notre Dame squandered when All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith was on the roster and Brian VanGorder was running the defense.

It’s worth bringing up because words like “attacking” and “aggressive” that described Freeman’s scheme the past four years at Cincinnati are sort of dog-whistle terms for those still having flashbacks to VanGorder’s largely tumultuous 30 games as ND's defensive coordinator (2014-16).

Two major fundamental differences of many: VanGorder’s scheme — adopted from his time in the NFL with Rex Ryan — relied on complexity and was way too convoluted for college kids to absorb and master.

The beauty of Freeman’s system is its simplicity, how it emphasizes instinct and athleticism, and how it gives players ownership to adjust pre-snap on their own rather than having to rely on a calculation coming in from the sidelines.

“The other day in the walk-thru, I’m like ‘Hey, what do you guys want to do to this?'” Freeman said of an upcoming offensive play. “‘Here’s our toolbox. What do you want to do?’ And let them make a decision.

"In a game it’s never going to be exactly like you see on film. So if you give those guys ownership now in practice, in a game they can make it.

“‘Coach, we haven’t seen this formation. I know what I need to do. I’m going to make a call.’ That’s why I say as long as you make a call and you’re confident and everybody’s on the same page, we’ll be fine.”

The second major departure between the two is adaptability. VanGorder’s scheme didn’t have an answer for either spread formations or tempo. Eventually, teams that typically didn’t embrace either of those concepts, took them on when playing the Irish just because it was such an easy path of least resistance.

Freeman said the most valuable lesson he’s learned as a coordinator came during the 2017 season, when the Bearcats finished 94th nationally in scoring defense. The next season they were ninth.

“We made some changes, and we had some success,” he said. “That was a big influence on me — the ability to say, ‘You have to be able to adapt and change to different offenses if you want to have success, because offenses are always adapting.

"(ND offensive coordinator) Tommy’s offense from the spring is a little bit different than what I’m seeing in the fall, and that’s not saying he’s spread and going 100 miles an hour. But there is always adapting (by) offensive guys.

“They spend so much time adapting and changing their offenses. So as a defensive coordinator, if you’re just saying, ‘This is what we do and that’s it,’ they can pass you by. Those offensive guys — oof — they’re rough, man.”

Here's a further sampling of some other significant elements that are emerging as to how Freeman’s defense is going to look come Sept. 5, when the Irish open the season at Florida State. 

• The linebackers, in particular, will rotate, as will most of the rest of the defense.

That’s the desire, and Freeman feels he has the personnel to pull it off.

“I know you’ve got 1s and 2s,” he said. “In our (linebacker) room, we say, ‘It’s 1As and 1Bs.’ And in a perfect world you have 22 guys who are 1As and 1Bs. What does that mean? It means you’re going to have a significant role.

“If you’re a 1A, you’re going to be the first one to go out there. If you’re a 1B, you’re going to have a role in our defense. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to play 50-50. It means it may be 70-30, 60-40, but I hope to have 1As and 1Bs.

“If you’re a 2 in our mind, then you’re probably not going in unless somebody’s hurt.

"So that’s kind of our philosophy in that I want to rotate at every position, but there might be some positions where the rotation isn’t as often as others.”

• Not all defensive prodigies will climb the depth chart in 2021.

“When you go from being one of the top whatever players in the country and then you come to Notre Dame with all these expectations, there are great football players here,” Freeman said. “Our job as coaches is to make sure we have a good grasp on those guys in our room and that they are continuously understanding that it’s a process to get where you want to go.

“That’s kind of my big focus with our position coaches. We have to know what our guys, our young guys, especially, are thinking right now every day. Because the minute you start thinking, ‘Oh, they’re fine. They’re just young,’ that’s when that transfer portal starts becoming more important and looks a little bit more attractive to those young guys.

“This is an important time when …  guys aren’t getting as many reps. We have to have a great relationship with those young guys.”

• The Irish won’t shy away from playing man coverage and being aggressive with their cornerbacks.

It’s one of the biggest divergences between Freeman and predecessor Clark Lea, now the head coach at Vanderbilt. And it’s not like there’s an abundance of experience in that position group.

“If they’re anything like (cornerbacks coach Mike) Mickens, they’re going to be (aggressive). That’s who Mick is," Freeman said. "I was just laughing with (defensive line coach Mike) Elston in the locker room like, ‘God, I bet you he was hard to coach.’

“He was like, ‘Yeah, I coached (Mickens). He sure was.’

“That’s (Mickens’) mentality. He’s an aggressive dude. He’s energetic. He pushes those guys. It’s funny. They talk about the creed in the corners’ room. (Mickens) always goes, ‘Coach Free, what’s No. 3 of the creed?’ It’s: Be violent. That hopefully answers your question in terms of ‘Do I think our corners are going to be able to be aggressive and play man?’

“Absolutely. Why? Because I think they’re unbelievably talented, but they have a corners coach that has that same mentality.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI