Marcus Freeman knew what he was looking for in a special teams coach; he found it in an old friend

Justin Frommer
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman admitted to feeling some weight on his shoulders to get the hirings right when filling out his coaching staff.

The first-year head coach wanted qualified candidates who could help push his team to the next level, no matter how long each decision took. 

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Mason speaks during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

"To me it still came down to don’t rush it and find the right fit," Freeman said. "It took a little bit more time than expected, but there is no timetable when bringing in the right guys." 

Some decisions, like tabbing Al Golden to be the Irish's defensive coordinator, took until February. Others, like special teams coordinator, were rather swift because Freeman knew exactly what he was looking for. 

Brian Mason checked all of Freeman's boxes due to the duo's previous working relationship. 

There are several ties to Mason's and Freeman's coaching past, dating to when they were grad assistants at Kent State in 2012. They also worked together as assistants at Purdue. And most recently, they were on the same staff at Cincinnati, where Freeman was defensive coordinator from 2017-20 and Mason was director of recruiting in 2017 before transitioning to special teams.

Mason said Freeman got him in contact with Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell about joining his staff.

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And when Freeman looked for Brian Polian's replacement, Mason was the call. 

"At the end of the day it became a no-brainer decision for myself and my family," said Mason, a 35-year-old Zionsville native. 

Mason's enthusiasm for special teams rivals just about anyone in college coaching.

With core principals of fundamentally sound football, explosive plays and winning the field position, Mason put together one of best special teams units in college football at Cincinnati last year. 

Heading into their College Football Playoff game against No. 1 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, the Bearcats recorded six blocked punts/kicks, which was tied for the most in the nation.

The Bearcats also ranked among the nation’s best punt return and kick return coverage units. UC ranked first in the American Athletic Conference and No. 9 in the nation in opponent punt return average (2.62) and No. 2 in the AAC and No. 27 overall in opponent kick return average (18.2).  

In comparison, Notre Dame was tied for 67th in the country with one blocked punt this season, 54th in kick return average (20 yards per return) and 47th in punt return average at over 6 yards per return.

In 2018 Mason also coached a Ray Guy Awards finalist, given to the nation's top punter,  in James Smith, who also earned spots on two All-America squads. 

Notre Dame has never had a Ray Guy Award winner or finalist, and hasn't had a semi-finalist since Geoff Price in 2006. 

Mason thinks that is achievable at Notre Dame. And he's set lofty expectations for the beginning of his Irish coaching tenure. 

"We want to be the No. 1 special teams unit in America," Mason said. "We are looking at special teams efficiency, and we want to be No. 1 in America. We look at punt, we want to be No. 1 in America in NET punt and top-10 in the efficiency rankings for kickoff, kickoff return and punt return." 

To get to that point, Mason's first task was to add more competition into the Irish's special teams room. 

By the end of last season, Notre Dame was left with two freshman kickers, Josh Bryan and Chris Salerno, with minimal experience, and two long snappers, Michael Vinson and Alex Peitsch, after kicker Jonathan Doerer had graduated and punter Jay Bramblett left for LSU. 

Bryce McFerson, the No. 1 punter in the 2022 recruiting class, per Chris Sailer Kicking, won't be joining the team until June. So, Mason looked for more bodies through the transfer portal and came out with kicker, Blake Grupe from Arkansas State and punter, Jon Sot from Harvard. 

“Whenever you bring someone in from the outside, how is it going to fit the cohesion of our group," Mason said. "The thing that was great about Grupe was he was a team captain (at Arkansas State). You don't see too many kickers that are team captains. I knew he could come in and in a year where we are going to have a new quarterback and different things, we need to be able to count on an experienced, high quality kicker that could make kicks for us." 

A successful unit also requires buy-in from the rest of the team. Players, who didn't necessarily come to Notre Dame to play special teams, willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the program. 

Notre Dame has seen that from star players, like Isaiah Foskey and Kyle Hamilton, during games last year. 

"We got to motivate them to show them how it is going to benefit themselves, the program and how it is going to help us win games," Mason said. 

Mason's been doing this long enough to know what a successful special teams unit can do for a team. How one big play can influence a game. 

Just look at his trip to South Bend last year, when a Chris Tyree fumble on a kickoff, following the Bearcats' first touchdown, led to a 23-yard field goal, en route to Cincinnati's 24-13 win. 

Or even more recently, the NFL Playoffs, which saw numerous games decided by special teams plays. 

"That 49ers/Packers game, we definitely have some clips tagged we are going to be showing them," Mason said. 

It's why Mason coaches how he does. Aggressive and creative with a goal of causing chaos. 

He hopes the Irish can replicate that mindset on the field this season.

"A lot of teams in college football are conservative," Mason said. "One little motto of mine is 'don’t live your life in fear'. We are going to be aggressive. We are going to be smart. We are not going to be worried about running into the kicker or punter. We are going to try to affect the kicker or punter, just like the defense does the quarterback."