Things We Learned: Freeman hire underscores Kelly’s run of success in building Notre Dame’s staff

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 04 UCF at Cincinnati
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Drew White and Kyle Hamilton put their trust in Brian Kelly when it came to hiring Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator. Their trust was understandable, given Kelly’s hires the last five years have consistently found success with the Irish.

White arrived at Notre Dame with the first of those, signing his National Letter of Intent weeks after Kelly brought Mike Elko and Clark Lea on board as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively.

“Coach Kelly has done a great job in his hires through my four years here,” the senior linebacker said after the 31-14 Irish loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal. “I have full trust in him to pick the right candidate.”

Kelly hiring Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati may matter more for White than anybody else. While Kelly’s 11 years and 100+ wins have largely secured his legacy at Notre Dame, White has one more year to impress NFL front offices. After making eight tackles for loss in 2019 and nine in 2020 (in one fewer game), his play diagnosis abilities may make him an intriguing prospect for some at the next level, but not yet, clearly, since he is returning for one more season with the Irish.

Enter Freeman.

“He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers,” Kelly said upon Notre Dame’s announcement of the hire. “Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.”

Much has rightfully been made of Kelly luring Freeman away from LSU’s trappings, not to mention Texas’ interest, Michigan’s vacancy and presumed heir apparent status at Cincinnati, but the value in the hire goes beyond the University cutting a bigger check.

Kelly getting his top priority at a coaching position has led to success after success since the 4-8 debacle in 2016.

First, there was Elko and then Lea at defensive coordinator. Not much more needs to be said about either’s work, one parlaying his Irish season into a massive paycheck at Texas A&M (after Notre Dame matched an initial offer) and the other building up his coaching stock for three seasons to such a degree he landed his literal dream job.

“Coach Lea’s shoes are big to fill,” Hamilton said. “He’s going to do great at Vanderbilt. I believe that with my whole heart. He’s a great guy, great coach, and I think coach Kelly knows that we respond well to that.

“He’ll try to find a guy that’s as cerebral, as dedicated and as focused on making us better football players as well as better men.”

Only time will tell if Freeman and his aggressive defensive approach are up to those steep charges, but Kelly’s focus on player development should continue with Freeman. Just as Elko sparked Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, and Lea spurred Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and White, Kelly’s hires involved with the program reboot have taken middling recruits or questionable positions and turned them into strengths.

In his first season, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens unearthed a potential four-year starter in Clarence Lewis. The other 2020 hire, tight ends coach John McNulty positioned Tommy Tremble for an early entry into the NFL draft while also prioritizing freshman Michael Mayer.

The most notable 2019 staff addition, Lance Taylor took a running backs room without any clear playmaker and made Kyren Williams into a freshman All-American a year later, Williams now possibly a dark horse Heisman candidate in 2021.

These are not the exceptions held aloft. Kelly’s hires since 2016 have nearly had a 100 percent hit rate, as Tommy Rees created an offense that averaged 33.4 points in 2020, a number pushing 38 before the Irish stumbled in their final two games. That only came after (and as) Rees found the talent within a hardly-noticed quarterback recruit in Ian Book.

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has matched nearly peerless recruiting with on-field performances warranting constant Joe Moore consideration. A storyline to trot out a few times in 2021: Jarrett Patterson was Quinn’s first recruit, arguably the best Notre Dame lineman in a year when two others were named first-team All-Americans.

If any assistant coaches have fallen short during this four-year stretch of double-digit victories, it has been safeties coach Terry Joseph, now reportedly off to Texas, or receivers coach Del Alexander, but the former turned a 2017 liability into the defense’s backbone in 2018 and 2019 while the latter created NFL prospects from the rough in Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and now perhaps Javon McKinley.

When those are the mistakes, that highlights the strength of the coaching staff and the reason the players trusted Kelly to make another solid hire.

If Kelly had needed to move down his shortlist, perhaps that trust could be called into question, but in bidding for and landing Freeman, Kelly and Notre Dame made it clear they intend for the current trend to become status quo.

Now to see if they can apply that thought process to finding a new safeties coach. Of course, Freeman will have a say in such.

Editor’s Note: Truth be told, the intention was to hold this column until said safeties coach would be hired, but the content churn must carry on, even in this momentary calm period, perhaps the first such stretch for the Irish in about 50 weeks. Make no mistake, the calm is welcomed.