Conversion to Catholic faith a 'family, personal decision,' Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman says

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman (center) poses with (l-r) Rev. Bill Schooler, Rev. John Jenkins, Rev. Nate Wills and Rev. Brian Ching after Freeman's recent conversion to the Catholic faith

SOUTH BEND — One of Marcus Freeman’s favorite sayings since his arrival at Notre Dame in early 2021 has been, “This place will change you if you let it.”

Thursday, he offered a little more context to his recent conversion to the Catholic faith, news of which was shared in the Sept. 11 weekly bulletin of his home parish at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Granger.

Freeman, who was raised in the Christian and Korean church traditions, called it a “family decision and personal decision.” His wife Joanna and their six children were already practicing Catholics.  

A photo of Freeman appeared in the bulletin showing him with Rev. Bill Schooler, the pastor at St. Pius; Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president; Rev. Nate Wills, team chaplain for Notre Dame football and Rev. Brian Ching, rector of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

According to the accompanying caption, Freeman made his profession of faith, was confirmed and received his First Holy Communion as part of the conversion process, which took place in early September.

“I tried to keep it as private as I could,” Freeman said. “Obviously, when you’re head coach at Notre Dame, nothing is private.”

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Manti Te'o set to return for Cal game

Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has returned for an Irish football game as recently as 2018, but his appearance on Saturday could carry a different feel.

“Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” a two-part Netflix documentary about the catfishing incident that embarrassed Te’o after his emotional and wildly successful 2012 season, was released in August to critical acclaim.

Social media reaction has been overwhelmingly positive in the wake of the documentary, which included interviews with Te’o, his parents, former Irish wide receiver Robby Toma and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

“Anytime you can have one of our greats come back, it is a great thing for our program,” Freeman said. “I try to do that often. If we’re going to have a former great football player, but somebody who can just talk to our players as one that has gone through it, I love that opportunity.”

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o (5) celebrates with teammates after he intercepted a pass from Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game on Saturday. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER

Freeman wasn’t directly involved in the return trip for Te’o, but he suggested the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up might address the current Irish team before it faces Cal. Te’o is scheduled to join in the Victory Walk and will address fans from a stage that is set up near the Hesburgh Library.

“It depends on what time his flight gets in, but (I) would love for him to be able to say hello to the team,” Freeman said. “Listen, I’m not looking for a big speech, but it’s an opportunity for our guys who know who Manti Te’o is to be able to sit down and meet him and get a chance to meet one of our own.”

Pleading the fourth

After Notre Dame surrendered fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 95 and 94 yards in each of the first two games, Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden were asked this week if the GPS readings offered any clues.

“I’m not aware of any difference there,” Golden said. “It’s pretty fundamental. We’ve got to finish better, and we’ve got to tackle better in the fourth.”

Matt Balis, director of football performance since 2017, provides Freeman with a detailed breakdown of player load and movement after every practice and game. Freeman and Balis “work really hard on that,” Golden said, but Freeman downplayed the GPS data as a possible source for late-game improvement.

“The GPS numbers don’t tell us a great story in terms of why we didn’t win the game,” Freeman said. “To me it’s more so throughout the entirety of the game: Where are the plays that we’re not executing? It’s not just the fourth quarter.”

Sep 10, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden watches in the first quarter against the Marshall Thundering Herd at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Freeman said it was important not to “get distracted by the fourth quarter” and overlook costly mistakes earlier in games.

Ohio State (14 plays, 95 yards) and Marshall (11 plays, 94 yards) mounted methodical drives that chewed up a combined 12:22 off the game clock. Since the start of 2018, just one other opponent, Alabama in the 2020 playoff semifinal, has marched 90-plus yards for a touchdown against Notre Dame.

The Tide went 97 yards in five plays in the first quarter, but that drive lasted just 2:11. The Buckeyes’ march of 7:06 in this year’s opener was the longest timewise to reach the end zone against Notre Dame since Louisville’s 13-play, 83-yard drive took 7:37 off the third-quarter clock in October 2020.

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Pittsburgh’s 17-play, 88-yard touchdown march that consumed 9:43 in the first quarter on Oct. 13, 2018 remains the longest timewise (or in terms of total plays) by an Irish opponent over the past four-plus seasons.

Since Freeman’s arrival in 2021, the Irish defense has allowed 12 touchdown drives of 80 or more yards. Five of those have taken place in the final quarter with two more coming in the third.

From 2018-20 under previous defensive coordinator Clark Lea, Notre Dame allowed 18 total touchdown drives of 80-plus yards. Seven of those came during three separate neutral-site losses to Alabama and Clemson (twice), and six others came at home.

Time share

Golden, who continued to rotate players on defense in the fourth quarter against Marshall, said it’s been a challenge sticking close to the anticipated snap count with the way the first two games have unfolded.

“It’s been such a dogfight both weeks that I kind of lost track of that,” he said. “We were trying to get guys in and out, but I didn’t see anything that was glaringly different than what we assumed. Right now, I think it’s where I thought it would be.”

According to Pro Football Focus’s online database, senior slot cornerback TaRiq Bracy led the Irish defense in total snaps for a second straight week. Bracy was on the field for 67 of 71 defensive snaps against Marshall, plus another eight on special teams.

Twenty-five players saw at least one defensive snap in Week 2. Others with 50 or more snaps were: cornerback Cam Hart (64), safety Brandon Joseph (60), defensive end Isaiah Foskey (52), linebackers JD Bertrand and Maris Liufau (51 each) and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (50).

“A lot of players are evolving,” Golden said. “There’s a lot of guys that are going to be helping us out more in the future, and that’s just the way it goes. Some guys get injured. Some guys step up.”

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.