Analysis: Marcus Freeman determined to take recruiting high road for Notre Dame football

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Righteous indignation flowed freely this past week from the mouths of famous football coaches at college outposts across the land.

Many of the same multimillionaires who played a vicious tug-of-war over supposed five-star talents still in high school wanted to alert their cranky fan bases about the five-alarm wildfire that’s been ignited by the lethal combination of “Name, Image and Likeness” (NIL) and the transfer portal.

Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman refused to join their hypocritical chorus, and that should pay dividends down the line.

Quack attack:Quack attack: Oregon jolts Notre Dame by flipping 5-star S Peyton Bowen, RB Jayden Limar

“We’re going to focus on the ones that decided to come here,” Freeman said at Wednesday’s rollout of his second top-10 recruiting class in as many tries. “You can’t worry about the ones you didn’t get. The guys that we got, they understand the value of Notre Dame.”

That’s not to say there won’t be an exhaustive self-study by Freeman and the nonstop recruiting machine he empowered to #ThinkBig. The self-styled “lead recruiter” made that abundantly clear amid what vaguely felt like an 11th-hour letdown, if only because Peyton Bowen’s stunning defection was still so fresh.

Bowen, the five-star Texas safety who had been on board since New Year’s Day, left the Irish at the altar on early signing day. First, he tossed their cap aside, and then he ran off with the same Oregon Ducks program that would steal four-star running back Jayden Limar from the Irish a few hours later.

By Thursday afternoon, Bowen finally put the whole Hamlet act to rest and officially signed with Oklahoma, where his girlfriend plays soccer for the Sooners and where Guyer High School teammate Jackson Arnold, this year’s No. 4 quarterback recruit, had already signed.

No one could blame Bowen for that, especially with the Norman campus just a 150-mile drive up I-35 from his family and friends in Denton.

In a social-media post that struck all the right notes, Bowen thanked Freeman, defensive coordinator Al Golden and safeties coach Chris O’Leary “for their passion, patience and efforts to bring me to South Bend.”

Bowen also apologized to Oregon and Notre Dame fans for how he handled a very public process.

“For most of this year I had truly envisioned my future at Notre Dame,” he wrote. “I came to realize that my heart was somewhere else.”

More:South Bend Saint Joseph's Daeh McCullough headlines area football signing day

At Oklahoma, Bowen will join three others with Notre Dame ties: Jacob Lacey, the graduate transfer defensive tackle who entered the portal in October; Indiana transfer Dasan McCullough, coming off a breakout freshman season as an edge rusher; and Daeh McCullough, the four-star safety from South Bend Saint Joseph.

The latter two are the sons of Notre Dame assistant Deland McCullough, who just added four-star running back Jeremiyah Love to his overstocked position group.

Five-star frustration

Bowen, of course, wasn’t the only five-star to slip off the hook for Notre Dame in the Class of 2023.

Tampa edge rusher Keon Keeley, rated the No. 10 overall prospect, landed with Alabama after backing away in August from his nonbinding commitment to Notre Dame. The Tide’s top-ranked recruiting class hoarded 20% of the five-star players available (seven of 35).  

And Detroit King quarterback Dante Moore, projected to the Irish when they dominated the recruiting wars for the first half of the year, bounced from Oregon to UCLA at the 11th hour.

That left Notre Dame’s eighth-ranked signing class without a single five-star signee among its 24 members. Florida’s recruiting class was the only other one listed among the top 15, according to 247Sports Composite, that overcame that five-star shutout.

Of the nearly 2,100 players to receive at least a three-star rating from 247Sports, just 1.7% were given the five-star label. Another 393 (18.8%) were considered four-star quality, and Notre Dame signed 20 of those, more than 80% of its haul.

“Listen, we’re all competitors; we want everyone,” Freeman said. “If we could take 30 kids, 40 kids, I’m sure we would. But you continue to sell what you believe attracts young people here, and they have to make the decision to come to Notre Dame for the right reasons.”

NIL is part of that discussion with Notre Dame, but it can’t be the driving force behind the decision.

Freeman, whose oldest son Vinny played varsity football this fall as a freshman at Culver Academy, connects so well with recruits and their families in part because of that shared experience. He can empathize with the emotional swings that accompany these life-changing decisions.

“If (Notre Dame) is not the best place for them, we have to be OK with that and make sure we’re bringing in the right kids,” Freeman said. “The earlier you can get these guys committed to Notre Dame, the better chance you have of signing them. But with time comes other obstacles, other thoughts into these recruits’ minds and thought process.”

Holding grudges and taking rejection personally doesn’t work in the modern recruiting game, no matter what public bellyaching is being done on other platforms. Then again, some of these guidelines are timeless.

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman is lifted in the air by defensive lineman Chris Smith during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Clemson Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame won 35-14. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Golden, who spent the previous six seasons as an NFL assistant, smiled when asked how recruiting had changed since his days running the show at Miami and Temple.

“I don’t know how different it is,” Golden said. “Obviously the portal has made a little bit of an impact. There’s no doubt about that. And we’re not immune to the irregularities of recruiting or some of the sideshows that go on with recruiting.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The hubbub over Peyton Bowen certainly qualified as a sideshow, complete with unsubstantiated rumors about seven-figure NIL offers being dangled on behalf of Oregon and Oklahoma.  

“What’s nice about recruiting at Notre Dame is for the most part you’re attracting a pre-qualified kid,” Golden said. “You’re attracting a kid that wants what you represent. Who you are is who you attract. We’re bringing the kids in that really want what we offer.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

78th Annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl 

  • Who: No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) vs. No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) 
  • When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164), Jacksonville, Fla. 
  • TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Notre Dame opens as a 4.5 -point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 3-1 
  • Last meeting: South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend in 1984.