Hansen: Freeman's early Notre Dame practices feel more like evolution than an experiment

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Head coach Marcus Freeman addresses the team during Notre Dame football practice for the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, inside the Irish Athletics Center at Notre Dame in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — The five-day, self-imposed nationwide recruiting tour Marcus Freeman went on just ahead of the NCAA-mandated dead period left little time to formulate hot takes on bowl opponent Oklahoma State or even his new practice routine.

“When you become the head coach of Notre Dame, there's a lot of firsts,” Freeman said Sunday after conducting bowl practice No. 2 in his new role, and the first with the media eavesdropping on a portion of it.

The fifth-ranked Irish (11-1) take on the ninth-ranked Cowboys (11-2) in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. (1 p.m. EST; ESPN). Freeman held practice No. 1 on Saturday and hosted a gaggle of recruits simultaneously, a day after his visit-apalooza road spree concluded.

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“You can try to prepare as much as you want,” Freeman said of the newness. “You don't know what to expect. You get out there and say, ‘OK, I guess I have to blow the whistle. I'm going to bring them up and they're on me. OK, what period is it? Who blows the horn?’

“There's a lot of little things that I’m so used to for my entire coaching career (that) somebody else is doing it. In terms of how we're dressing, what time we’re on the field, how we're transitioning from station to station, drill to drill. Those are the things that it's going to take some adjusting.

“As (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick said yesterday, I said, ‘At some point this is going to become normal? It's not going to be something new every day?’

“He said, ‘No, there will always be something new.’ So, I'm ready for it.”

What makes that statement believable is also one of the reasons Freeman’s ascent from Irish defensive coordinator to Brian Kelly’s successor didn’t get hung up on his lack of head coaching experience.

He’s learned to not only navigate the unknown and uncomfortable, but to thrive in those circumstances.

Not that it was easy at first.

The first acrid taste came during his days as an NFL player, a stage of his life that came to an end roughly a year after it started with a diagnosis of an enlarged heart. What preceded it, though, didn’t offer much promise but did provide an opportunity for growth.

The Chicago Bears had drafted the 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker out of Ohio State in the fifth round in the spring of 2009, then cut Freeman roughly four months later and nine days before the 2009 season opener at Green Bay.  

“It was a great learning experience, because I was never outside of my comfort zone when I went to Ohio State.” Freeman said “I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. I went to Ohio State and had a lot of friends on that team.

“You were never really pushed outside your comfort zone. The minute I got to Chicago and I was by myself, my family was back home, I said, ‘Ooh, this is a little bit uncomfortable.’ That helped me grow.

“It helped me get to this point where, ‘Hey, you can handle being outside your comfort zone.’ I use this in recruiting, because I tell these guys, ‘The unique part about Notre Dame is South Bend isn't home to many of our players. Maybe one or two. So everybody coming to South Bend is coming from outside.’

“So they learn how to lean on each other and get through those uncomfortable moments. That's why, to me, the young people that come here know how to get through the homesickness and those uncomfortable times that I went through all of the sudden when I'm in Chicago." 

Back in the present moment, even figuring out where to stand during certain drills and during team periods on Sunday came off a little awkward.

“I’m a man without a home right now,” he said with a smile.

But not without momentum and some continuity.

Braden Lenzy (0) turns up field after making a catch during Notre Dame football practice for the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, inside the Irish Athletics Center at Notre Dame in South Bend.

Every assistant coach from Kelly’s staff — save special teams coordinator Brian Polian, now at LSU with Kelly — was coaching in Sunday’s practice, and all are expected to do so at least through the bowl game.

Senior defensive analyst Nick Lezynski, meanwhile, is coaching the linebackers — Freeman’s old position group — and special teams, though Freeman is heavily involved in the latter.

“I've always been involved in special teams,” he said. “Even during the season, I've always been in every special teams meeting. So, I will be involved with the special teams, but Nick Lezynski has kind of taken that leadership role." 

Lezynski, defensive line coach Mike Elston, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O’Leary have started to cobble together the early stages of the defensive game plan with Freeman preoccupied with visiting all of ND’s committed offensive players last week.

The early three-day signing window for that class opens Wednesday.

“I have not really had an opportunity to develop a relationship with those guys and their families,” Freeman said. “And so that was a huge point of emphasis. And if there was a defensive commit that was nearby, I wanted to try to see them, too.”

Back on the ground Sunday, Freeman made a point to greet and hug every Notre Dame player during warmups, just as he did in every practice as ND’s defensive coordinator.

In full uniform was freshman offensive tackle Blake Fisher, out since halftime of the Sept. 5 season opener at Florida State with a knee injury. Freeman jogged with the opening-night starter, then watched him go through a full practice with few restrictions.

“I don’t know if he’ll be full-go released for the game yet,” Freeman said, “but to see him out there during team reps is extremely encouraging.”

And it was, in turn, encouraging for the players to see Freeman so involved in the warmups as he always was.

Head coach Marcus Freeman has a chat with offensive guard John Dirksen (56) during Notre Dame football practice for the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, inside the Irish Athletics Center at Notre Dame in South Bend.

“He’s still that same guy every day he’s been since day one when he took the defensive coordinator job here,” senior center/captain Jarrett Patterson said.” So to be able to interact with him like that, it’s really cool.”

It’s part of the reason Freeman’s choice to succeed Kelly continues to feel more like a natural evolution than an experiment.

“When we met with Mr. Swarbrick about head coaching possibilities, we wanted someone who’d keep the culture of the program intact,” Patterson said, “that wasn’t going to try to bring in their own philosophies and ideas, and try to change everything. 

“So that’s why we vouched for coach Freeman, because he knew that this place was special and we knew that as well. Him now and for how ever long he’s here, we know he’s going to keep the culture intact.

“At the end of the day, we want to see this program succeed for years after we’re gone.”

Perhaps the most compelling part of the upcoming chapters along those lines is how Freeman will inject himself into the offense — now and eventually.

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, without Kelly as a backstop or a handbrake, can reshape Notre Dame’s offensive identity if he so chooses, as well as his own.  

“I want to make sure that we have a good balance in terms of run and pass,” Freeman said. “I want to be good. That’s the thing I told Tommy, ‘We don’t have to run the ball a thousand times. We don’t have to throw the ball a thousand times. I want to be efficient in what we do. I want to be able to control the clock if we need to. I want to score points if we need to.’ 

“So I’m going to spend more time with Tommy and the offense, just because I think it’s going to help me as a coach. I’ve been on the defensive side of the ball my entire life. And so, it was something I saw Luke Fickell do, and something I’m probably going to do, is spend more time with the guys and get more involved. 

“And be able to give them input from a defensive point of view. I look forward to doing that.”

The trust Freeman has in Rees is palpable, though. 

 "Well, I told him, ‘What a great opportunity for him to work for a head coach that is not an offensive guy.’” Freeman said. “I kind of went through that in my transition from Cincinnati to here, and (Cincinnati head coach) Luke Fickell is obviously a defensive guy and he was always a sounding board for me. Somebody that I could go into his office and say, ‘Hey, what do you think? What's your thoughts on this?’ 

“I'm sure Tommy had that with coach Kelly. Now, coming here for myself, it made me grow. I don't have that head coach to go and bounce things off of. I got to depend on myself and the staff. That's what's going to be great for Tommy.

“We haven't been together all year long, but he's got to continue to know that I always will have his back. And so, you know what, if you're dying to do something offensively and you come to me with conviction, let's do it.

“If you're dying to do something personnel-wise, you come to me, let's do it, because I always have your back."

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI