Marcus Freeman almost makes it sound simple. Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator was the hottest commodity on the assistant coaching market this offseason for a reason, the effectiveness of his Cincinnati defenses. Those defenses relied on aggression and varying fronts to be so effective.
Aggressive play is largely self-explanatory, enhanced by Freeman’s preference to minimize pre-snap reads and simply play, a preference Irish defenders have praised all spring.
“We want to be aggressive in what we do,” Freeman said Tuesday. “Sometimes giving those guys the opportunity to cut loose and be disruptive is what they’re talking about. It still has to fit within the scheme. Once they continue to get to know the scheme and know exactly what we’re looking for, there’s some freedom within there to be a football player.
“I believe in, we’re going to play football. I tell them all the time, ‘Let’s be football players, not fit-ball players.’”
That forced wordplay aside, the aggressiveness of Freeman’s defense needs little further explanation, though plenty will assuredly be used to fill some of the next 138 days. But the multiple fronts will be a new wrinkle for the Notre Dame defense, which almost always deployed four-man defensive lines the last four years under Mike Elko and then Clark Lea.
Freeman knows the Irish roster was recruited for a defensive scheme relying on a four-man front, so he will not under-utilize those resources by outright abandoning it; sticking with it for a majority of the time was all but a requirement of Brian Kelly‘s hiring process this winter. But varying how Notre Dame pressures opposing offenses is still a priority, and that’s where Freeman makes this approach come across as borderline simple.
“Our whole philosophy is front multiplicity, coverage consistency,” Freeman said. “Within each package, four d-linemen, three d-linemen, we still have to be multiple up front. That’s something we’ll spend time trying to continue to develop and expand the package. We want to continue to be multiple in the fronts, multiple in the movements up front, multiple in the ways we blitz linebackers to create four- or five-man fronts.”
Freeman has a luxury on hand to create those different looks. When he first started asking his new coaching staff about the Irish roster, one name came with particular praise.
“When I first got here, everyone said [junior end Isaiah Foskey] was the potential first-round pick of the future,” Freeman said before quickly then praising rising sophomore end Jordan Botelho, as well.
The one-two duo at Vyper, formerly known as Drop end, may be as crucial to Freeman’s scheme as the Rover linebacker position was under Lea. Foskey has spent the last few weeks of spring practices working on his coverage techniques, realizing the fundamentals that cornerbacks make look easy are actually intricate.
“Covering, there are just new techniques I need to learn,” Foskey said last week. “I always see corners doing it with chasing their head and staying with [receivers]. It always looks easy when they do it, but when you actually go out there, it’s a little bit more challenging. There’s just a little bit more stuff I have to work on, like getting hands-on the guy when he’s about to break on a route, staying close to his hip, being more aggressive at the point of attack.”
If that sounds like pulling one of, if not the, Notre Dame’s best pass rushers away from the line of scrimmage, that is somewhat the idea. If opposing offenses cannot even assume Foskey will be chasing the quarterback on every snap (or Botelho, who has worked with linebackers this spring, per Freeman, as part of this overall spirit), then pass protection becomes that much more difficult for them. Freeman will instead blitz linebackers (whose coverage Foskey or Botelho essentially then picks up) or safeties or cornerbacks or, if he could, assistant coaches. Front multiplicity meets aggression.
That front’s success still dictates the defense’s success, and a blitzing linebacker is only going to succeed if there are talented defensive linemen preoccupying the offensive line to start with.
“We’ve always been and will always be a defensive line-driven program. That means as our defensive line goes, our defense will go,” Freeman said. “… As they continue to play well, it makes our job behind them that much easier. … It’s made it easier for the transition of linebackers, safeties and corners to make the transition of a new defense.”
Then comes the coverage consistency, Foskey’s and Botelho’s contributions included. While the Irish are replacing two starting defensive backs and turning a part-time freshman starter into a foundational piece as a sophomore, Freeman still had nothing but glowing things to say about his secondary, in particular the other half of that just-mentioned part-time starting role.
“[Senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy has] had an excellent spring,” Freeman said. “Through 11 practices he’s been really consistent and one of our most consistent defensive backs we’ve had on the field. I don’t know what he was like before I got here, as I told him the first day I got here, I make my opinion of you from the first day I meet you.
“He’s in here watching extra film, he’s consistently meeting with [cornerbacks coach Mike] Mickens and the corners and trying to get better at his craft. He’s doing the little things off the field that it takes to be a successful player.”
If Freeman’s lauding of Bracy is valid and joins the encouraging words from Kelly about junior cornerback Cam Hart and senior safety Houston Griffith from earlier this spring, suddenly the Irish might have a secondary held together by more than only junior safety Kyle Hamilton’s prodigious length. If all that is the case, Freeman may have his coverage consistency needed to buttress that aggressive front multiplicity.