Marcus Freeman expected to become Notre Dame football's next head coach

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — The wishes of Notre Dame players, recruits and many fans alike may be granted soon.

Notre Dame appears to be closing in on promoting defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman as its next head coach. 

Multiple reports surfaced Wednesday night indicating Freeman is expected to replace Brian Kelly, the winningest coach in program history. FootballScoop and On3 were first to report the news on Twitter. Subsequent reports from ESPN and Sports Illustrated indicated the deal was not yet done.

By Thursday morning, multiple Notre Dame recruits were being told by the Irish coaching staff that Freeman would get the job and that many staff members would remain in place.

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

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees told Notre Dame's team Wednesday night that he wasn't leaving the program. Video of his announcement was shared via the @NDFootball Twitter account. Defensive line coach Mike Elston, who has coached with Kelly since 2004, shared on Twitter that he wasn't leaving either.

ND Insider confirmed via sources that running backs coach Lance Taylor, tight ends coach John McNulty, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O'Leary all intend to stay on staff as well.

Official announcements from Notre Dame do not might not come until after the Irish learn of their postseason destination on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick acted quickly in replacing Kelly, who agreed to become LSU’s head coach Monday night. Kelly’s first press conference in Baton Rouge, La., happened Wednesday afternoon. The Irish reportedly identified his replacement later in the evening. 

The 35-year-old Freeman will step into the driver's seat of Notre Dame’s prestigious football program as a head coach for the first time less than a year after arriving on campus as a defensive coordinator.

He was a popular choice in many corners. Several current Notre Dame players and recruits had taken to social media to advocate for their preference as Freeman as coach with the Twitter hashtag #FreemanEra.

► More:#FreemanEra: Support from ND football players and recruits pours out for Marcus Freeman

Freeman came to Notre Dame in January fresh off four seasons as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator that made him one of the hottest young names in coaching. Ironically, he chose to join Kelly’s staff in South Bend over an offer to become Ed Orgeron’s defensive coordinator at LSU. 

Freeman impressed in his first season as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. The No. 6 Irish (11-1) will enter their weekend of watching conference championships from afar ranked in a tie for No. 11 in scoring defense (18.2 points per game) and No. 29 in total defense (339.1 yards per game). 

A regular season that started with some overreacting fans calling him Marcus VanGorder — a nod to infamously bad defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder who was fired in 2016 — following shaky defensive performances against Florida State and Toledo ended with Notre Dame allowing just two touchdowns across its last four games. 

First-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has had plenty to smile about as his defense evolves during August training camp.

The impact Freeman made on Notre Dame’s program was apparent before he even coached a game this season. Freeman showed his chops as a recruiter in helping put together a 2022 recruiting class ranked Wednesday as fourth-best in the country by Rivals and 247Sports.

The Irish only lost one verbal commitment from defensive back Devin Moore in the wake of Kelly’s departure. Of the 22 recruits still committed Wednesday, 10 of them were defensive recruits. Even four-star tight end Holden Staes showed support for Freeman on Twitter before he was hired.

That's a big reason why Freeman will become the first defensive coordinator Notre Dame has promoted to full-time head coach since Bob Davie followed legendary coach Lou Holtz in 1997.

Freeman's first game as Notre Dame head coach would come against his alma mater, Ohio State, to open the 2022 season. The Irish play the Buckeyes on Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.

Freeman was a four-year letter winner during his career at Ohio State (2004-08). The linebacker was a fifth-round NFL Draft pick of the Chicago Bears in the 2009 NFL Draft. His pro career was short-lived after being cut by the Bears in preseason camp and bouncing to the practice squads of the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans.

In February 2010, Freeman failed a physical for the Indianapolis Colts when an enlarged valve in his heart was discovered. The unfortunate news accelerated the start of his coaching career, which began back at Ohio State as a graduate assistant.

Freeman spent two seasons as a linebackers coach at Kent State (2011-12) and four seasons as a linebackers coach at Purdue (2013-16). Freeman carried the title of co-defensive coordinator at Purdue in 2016 before Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, whom Freeman played for at Ohio State, hired him as his defensive coordinator in 2017.

The Bearcats struggled in Freeman's first season with a defense that ranked No. 94 in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing 31.8 points per game. The improvement that followed was stark. Each of the next three seasons, Cincinnati's defense finished among the top 25 in scoring defense: No. 9 in 2018 (17.2), No. 24 in 2019 (20.6) and No. 13 in 2020 (16.8).

When Freeman arrived at Notre Dame, the consensus was he might not be with the Irish for long. That's because he wanted to be a head coach eventually and attractive opportunities would likely come his way if the success carried over in South Bend.

Turns out he wouldn't have to leave Notre Dame to take on that title.

“I don’t need to really rush to any opportunity just to be a head coach, because that’s not why I do this," Freeman said in June. "That’s not why I coach. It’s not to say I’m the head coach.

“Do I want an opportunity to do that at some point? I do. But I’m not chasing being a head coach. I’m chasing being the best defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. That’s my passion. If you do that, the opportunity’s going to present itself." 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.