Tracking Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman's offensive philosophy ... in his own words

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Last St. Patrick’s Day, at the start of Marcus Freeman’s first spring practice as Notre Dame’s head coach, his vaunted self-awareness and vulnerability was on full display.

“I’m no quarterback guru,” the former linebacker and defensive coordinator said. “I’m not afraid to admit that. I’m going to lean on Tommy Rees to talk about who’s the starting quarterback. He’s played the position. He’s the offensive coordinator.”

As time went on, however, and the Irish had to dig their way out of an 0-2 start with a backup quarterback, Freeman became more willing to share his thoughts on the offensive side of the ball.

More:With Rees to Alabama, who takes over Notre Dame's offense? Here are some potential candidates

With the 30-year-old Rees off to Alabama for the next chapter in his fast-moving career and spring practice right around the corner, an array of prospective replacements figure to cross Freeman’s desk.

What does Freeman want to see from his offense and by extension the coordinator he entrusts to call those plays? He offered no shortage of clues throughout his first season at the helm:

Feb 5, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Football head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledges the crowd as he is recognized during the first half of the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Duke Blue Devils at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

‘Smart but aggressive’

“In the second half, I wanted to be aggressive: ‘Let's not be cautious. Let's be smart but be aggressive.’ We can't play keep-away. I sit there and I challenge these guys every day to be relentless and aggressive and go after them and let loose. With eight minutes on the clock, I can't sit there and say, ‘OK, let's play keep-away.’ I wanted them to be aggressive.” — Dec. 30, 2022 after Notre Dame's 45-38 Gator Bowl win over South Carolina

On risk assessment

“The interception, that was a chance … for us to be aggressive, but it also wasn't smart. Didn't have the exact look we were looking for, and the guy made a great play (for a 100-yard, game-tying interception return). Obviously at that moment we were running the ball really well, and again, ultimately, we obviously shouldn't have (thrown) it, shouldn't have called it.” — Dec. 30, 2022 Gator Bowl postgame on South Carolina's O'Donnell Fortune's pick-six midway through the fourth quarter

Timeline:A look at Tommy Rees' 10-year career at Notre Dame as a player and coach

On willingness to evolve

“The growth in our offense … from the first game of the year has been tremendous. I think back to that game, and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. I think running the ball is a vital piece of our offense to have success, but in continuing to control the game clock with different types of tempo is something that we’ve grown at. It’s not, ‘Huddle every play and wait ‘til five seconds are on the play clock and snap it.’ It’s the ability to control the tempo of the game using different variables. That’s what we’ll continue to try to do. We still have to be multiple.” — Nov. 11, 2022, Monday before season finale at USC

Simple but spicy

“Each week coach Rees and the offensive staff does a great job of presenting new ways for situational football. Part of that is short yardage, and the Mitchell Evans (sneak) plan they came up with, coach Rees did a great job with that. Each week you have to find a new wrinkle. I challenged them this week to be simplistic, but also you can’t be so bland that there’s no level of confusion (for the opponent). We might run the same play that we’ve run how many different times. We might motion and shift and run the same play. But there’s different ways to mask the same play that it doesn’t look the exact same to a defense.” — Nov. 7, 2022, Monday after upset of Clemson, referring to tight end Mitchell Evans taking direct snaps on short-yardage plays.

Nov 5, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman talks to quarterback Drew Pyne (10) after Pyne scored a touchdown against the Clemson Tigers in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

'Do what we do'

“You have to play to your strength within the flow of the game. We were able to run the ball, then keep doing it. I remember being a defensive coordinator. If you couldn’t stop the run, you would hope they try to throw the ball. … You’re still going to come back to doing what you do well. We have to do what we do.” — Nov. 7, 2022 after the Clemson win

Emotional investment

“That’s a real relationship (between Rees and quarterback Drew Pyne). You’re not always, hopefully, yelling and screaming at each other like they were doing in the Cal game. But that’s a reflection of two guys that trust each other. You can have those type of moments, but also embrace and tell them you love them and ‘I’m so proud of you.’ … Sometimes the greatest display of love is discipline. Discipline might be yelling and screaming at someone, ‘Do your job!’ or whatever expletives (Rees) used. But the other part is telling someone, “I love you and I’m so dang proud of you, man.’ That is what I want our players to have with their coaches.” — Nov. 7, 2022 after Clemson win

Analysis:Notre Dame football sticks to its portal plan and adds the transfers it needs


“I don’t want to say we physically dominated them, but we knew going in that we had to run the ball. You look at every game that we’ve won. I think we rushed the ball 40-plus times. That’s been our backbone. We knew this defensive line was special, but we couldn’t shy away from our strength. It was a challenge to our offensive line, to our quarterback, our running backs. At some point during the game, their confidence rose and they said, ‘Listen, we can block anybody in the country.’ “ — Nov. 5, 2022 Clemson postgame


“I tell the team all the time: When things go bad, it’s bad play-calling. When things go well, it’s great play-calling. That’s the reality of things. I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now. We were able to execute better. To me the sign of a leader is, ‘Are we preparing the right way?’ That’s the challenge and that’s, to me, what our coordinators will continue to do. ... The result of that preparation is what you saw today: We had some guys open. That’s the beauty of our position. If things go well, it’s, ‘Coaches did a great job.’ If things aren’t going so well, it’s a lot of times on the coaches. The reality is the players have to execute, and our job is to put those players in position to succeed.” — Sept. 24, 2022 North Carolina postgame

‘Beautiful portrait’

“There’s no running game without an offensive line opening up holes. It all starts up front. It’s been really good to see. Now, what does that do? It (builds) confidence and momentum in your running game. Your running backs are able to hit those holes. It’s not to say the running game success is all based off the O-line, but it’s a big part. What does that do? It creates issues for the defense. Are you going to put an extra hat in the box? That can create some mismatches in the pass game, open up some zones in the pass game. It’s a beautiful portrait. Everything has to work together. Everything has to be on point for us to have success.” — Oct. 13, 2022, the Thursday before losing to Stanford at home

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees listen to Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman speak during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

'Critical eye'

“What I love about what our offensive staff and Tommy have done is I think they’ve challenged each other in terms of their preparation. Today is a result of really having a critical eye in terms of evaluating everything we do. Sometimes it gets misconstrued that it’s all about the game. I know that the result matters and that’s how we’re judged. But to get the result you want, man, you have to prepare the right way and that means having a critical eye. That means having uncomfortable conversations every day during the week and really challenging each other to find ways to improve. What coach Rees and that offensive staff have done is really challenge each other to practice at a higher level and ultimately they’re performing at a higher level.” — Oct. 8, 2022 after Notre Dame's 28-20 win over BYU in Las Vegas

Limit turnovers

“I said it to our team from the beginning of the year: When you have success running the ball, it opens up everything. It opens up the pass game. It opens up misdirection. It’s been really good to see Drew Pyne, No. 1, make good decisions. That’s the most important thing at the quarterback position. You’ve got to make the right decision. Number 2, he’s limited his turnovers. He’s taking care of the football. Number 3, he’s starting to make a lot of plays.” —Oct. 3, 2022 during Notre Dame's bye week

Clear identity

“It’s what you hope Notre Dame football is going to be about. You’re going to have an O-line that can run the ball, even if a team knows we’re going to run the ball. We’re not saying to get 10-yard gains. Those were added bonuses, those big plays. But to be able to run the ball at will for 4 or 5 yards, that’s something you have to be able to do, especially with our current roster. Those two freshman tackles are figuring it out. To have Zeke (Correll) in there (at center) — they’re jelling. They’re jelling.” — Sept. 24, 2022 after win at North Carolina

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