Notre Dame hires top defensive coordinator target, Cincinnati’s Marcus Freeman

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Austin Peay at Cincinnati
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Notre Dame out-recruited LSU and Texas in pursuit of the hottest prospect in the 2021 offseason by hiring defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman away from Cincinnati on Friday. Freeman had been with the Bearcats for four seasons.

“As we looked into finding someone to run our defense, it was important to find the right fit for our program and Marcus and his family are just that,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers. Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.”

As a linebackers coach, Freeman is a like-for-like replacement for Clark Lea, now the head coach at Vanderbilt after three years as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. 

Also like Lea, Freeman has already publicly stated a want to be a head coach sooner than later, leading many to expect him to remain at Cincinnati this offseason to be in position to replace Luke Fickell when the Bearcats head coach presumably moves to a Power Five gig. When that day comes, Fickell will in part have Freeman’s success to thank.

Cincinnati has been trending upward for a few seasons now, but 2020 was its real breakout, led by the No. 8 defense in the country in scoring (16.8 points per game) and No. 4 in yards per play (4.57). The final SP+ rankings of the season considered the Bearcats the No. 6 defense in the country. For reference, Notre Dame was No. 14 in scoring defense (19.7), No. 56 in yards per play (5.56) and No. 20 in SP+.

“The work Marcus has done elevating the programs he has been a part of speaks for itself, but equally as important is the exceptional work he has done in building relationships with his staff and players,” Kelly said. “Marcus was our top choice to become our next defensive coordinator, and we are pleased he and his family will be joining us at Notre Dame.”

If Freeman was Kelly’s top choice — and every indication possible makes it clear he was — then that also means the Irish defensive scheme will not change too much. Lea’s (and before him for one season, Mike Elko’s) rover-centric approach has brought Kelly great results, the backbone to four consecutive double-digit win seasons and two Playoff appearances.

Before the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl, Kelly made it clear he did not want to change too much, particularly knowing his roster has been recruited for this scheme.

“We’ve recruited to a base four-down,” Kelly said on New Year’s Eve. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t play three-down, because we do. In our nickel and dime package, we’re primarily in a  three-down package.

“So as long as the system can marry with our recruiting, that’s the most important thing. As long as it marries with the recruiting we’ve been doing over the last three and four years, I’m open to what the system looks like. It doesn’t necessarily have to be always four-down. We can be in some three-down and some four-down.”

In other words, Notre Dame’s strength at defensive tackle will be well-utilized in 2021 under Freeman.

He should also have some immediate chemistry with cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, who worked as Freeman’s cornerbacks coach in 2018 and 2019 before arriving in South Bend.

The Irish are scheduled to host Cincinnati on Oct. 2.