Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s defense too good for Marcus Freeman to change too much

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Despite being perhaps the most highly-sought assistant coach this offseason, despite opting to join Notre Dame amid an all-out push from LSU, despite leaving a top-20 program with a high 2021 ceiling, new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has no intentions of exerting his influence too quickly in South Bend.

Why fix what isn’t broken?

“Notre Dame’s defense has been good for many, many years,” Freemain said earlier this month. “You got to be a crazy person to come in here and say, ‘We’re going to change what you’ve done to have success to being [in the] College Football Playoff two of the past three years. We’re going to change everything we’ve done defensively.’ You’re crazy to think that as a defensive coordinator.”

That was part of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s intent as he looked for Clark Lea’s replacement. Notre Dame has spent the last five years recruiting to a four-down front, looking to highlight an outside linebacker, keeping enough large defensive ends on hand to create a third-down pass-rush package to torment opposing quarterbacks. The system has worked, resoundingly well.

Kelly didn’t want a coach who would throw that foundation out the window, but that does not mean Freeman will be completely hands-off.

“Our alignments might change, the exact technique might change, but there’s some similarities into where you align and what you’re asked to do within the scheme,” Freeman said. “… A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Ultimately, all I care about is we put our guys in the position to be successful and play fast.”

That has been the modus operandi of Freeman’s defenses. Simple but aggressive.

That formula led Cincinnati to allowing only 16.8 points per game in 2020, good for No. 8 in the country. Comparison: The Irish gave up 19.7 points per game, No. 14. The Bearcats had three sacks per game (No. 16), 7.3 tackles for loss (No. 24) and forced 21 turnovers in 10 games.

Freeman does not try to confuse the opposing offense so much as simply outplay it.

“I’m not going to try to trick you,” he said. “I want to make sure we give our guys the ability to get lined up, play relentless, play with the effort that we demand and we want to see, and to let these guys go play.

“We have some of the best players in the country, and that’s what I’m excited about. I have a chance to coach some of the best players in the country because of the way Notre Dame has recruited over the past years.”

Freeman would have been one of those players 15 years ago if he had not been born and raised an hour from Columbus, Ohio, believing solely in all that is Ohio State. His high school teammates were already suiting up for the Buckeyes when Freeman had to choose between them and the Irish.

“If you took that out of the equation, those already opinions that I had about Ohio State, I probably would have come to Notre Dame,” he said.

That wasn’t quite regret, so much as it was refining what will become Freeman’s recruiting pitch for teenagers now facing that decision.

“I knew where I wanted to go, and I committed there, and I went there,” he said. “But I think now looking back, you realize this place is really, really special. The opportunities you can gain after being a graduate of Notre Dame, they’re opportunities that you can’t get everywhere else.

“So I know that now, being here, that this is an unbelievable once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially for young people who are trying to figure out where they want to go to school. When you have the opportunity to come to Notre Dame, you better really consider it because the things this place will do for your football career, but also for your life, are hard to match anywhere else in the country.”

None of that previous paragraph qualifies as something new for an Irish fan to hear, and the quote would thus not usually be included, but it is worth noting Freeman already had that entire recruiting pitch down pat only weeks after Kelly hired him, barely having had the chance to sell more than a few recruits on it.

That may be part of why Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston deemed Freeman a “tiger” in recruiting.

“The one thing that I’ll tell you is that he’s a tiger and I love that,” Elston said. “I love working with other coaches that attack in the recruiting cycle and build relationships and challenge me as a position coach to do the same.”

Fitting with that “love,” Notre Dame named Elston recruiting coordinator on Monday morning, also adding defensive run game coordinator to his duties, while naming Brian Polian, the former recruiting coordinator, the associate head coach.

“[Polian] is essential in helping us understand NCAA legislation, and in building relationships within and beyond our program,” Kelly said in a statement. “Likewise, Mike Elston has done a tremendous job in recruiting and is a natural fit in that role.”

Elston led the Irish recruiting efforts from 2015 to 2017, when Polian then took over, so by no means is this a venture into uncharted territory.

ON DEFENSIVE TERMINOLOGY
The exact names in the playbook of particular linebackers and defensive ends have no actual effect on performance and is only useful as a shorthand once it is well-established in previous writing, so Freeman saying Notre Dame’s Rover will still be called a Rover, and the Vyper defensive end will still be the Vyper, does not actually mean much. It does, however, underscore his intention to not confuse the players.

“I would much rather put the pressure on myself and the coaches to learn different terminology than (on) the players,” he said. “They have enough on their plate.”

The roles may change a bit, but that nomenclature will remain, simply to make life easier for the players.

However, the Buck linebacker will now be known as the Will linebacker. Consider Will to mean “weakside” for your more literal needs.

INSIDE THE IRISH:
On transfers, development and NIL legislation
Notre Dame’s offensive signees and arrivals: A quarterback competition in name only
Notre Dame’s defensive signees: Continued defensive line depth and development
Notre Dame’s defensive signees: Averting a disaster in linebacker recruiting
Notre Dame’s 2022 class: Six commitments so far, only so many more to come

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