Leftovers & Links: Back from the road, Marcus Freeman now looking for his ‘home’ at Notre Dame’s practices

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After a week spent going just about everywhere across the country, Marcus Freeman no longer knows where to go. He arrived at Notre Dame 11-plus months ago and made an immediate recruiting impact, and with the early signing period beginning Wednesday — only nine days after he was publicly introduced as the Irish head coach — Freeman spent much of the last two weeks recruiting, something that may as well come second-nature to him.

Then on Saturday he returned to the practice field and that head coaching role left Freeman unsure about what comes next.

“The first two practices have been an adjustment for me,” he said Sunday. “… Trying to get used to where to go, where to run to. I’m a man without a home right now.”

Freeman used to line up behind the defense on every snap, even field goal attempts, as one would expect from a defensive coordinator. Spring and preseason practices highlight reels featured him celebrating any and every defensive victory.

But now, he knows he has to give equal love to the offense, more than just his habit of physically interacting with each and every player during pre-practice stretching, something he made a daily occurrence beginning with the first spring practice last year.

“Now you can’t cheer for the defense, you can’t want the defense to win every rep,” Freeman said. “No, I want the offensive guys to have some great reps. …

“I was a little bit more comfortable today than I was yesterday. I’m sure that the next time we’re out at practice, I’ll be a little bit more comfortable in where I go, but I got to figure out where I’m going for individual periods right now and the linebackers are kind of looking at me weird.”

Those are all understandably difficult tendencies to break for a lifetime defensive coach, ones that would not be as distinct if Freeman was taking over in the gradual buildup of the spring rather than abruptly during bowl preparations, but his acknowledging them fits in line with those pre-practice interactions. To the Irish roster — and this is not meant as editorializing, but rather paraphrasing repeated comments — Freeman comes across as authentic, even in his transition.

“One of the first things people talk about was him greeting everybody in our warm-up lines,” fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “It’s little things like that, you see through a player, through a coach. You’re like, ‘Man, this guy cares.’

“Stuff like that goes such a long way. It can impact people’s perspective on you in ways that you can’t even imagine.”

Freeman’s lifetime as a defensive mind, these day-to-day habits to break aside, will be to at least one person’s benefit as Freeman begins his head coaching career. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has always had someone else to lean on in his role, be it his predecessor Chip Long or simply former Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who always focused on the offensive side of the ball.

Now, Rees reports to someone who admittedly knows less about the offense than he does.

“What a great opportunity for him to work for a head coach that is not an offensive guy,” Freeman said. “I kind of went through that in my transition from Cincinnati to here, and [Bearcats head coach] Luke Fickell is obviously a defensive guy and he was always a sounding board for me, somebody that I could go into his office and say, ‘Hey, what do you think? What’s your thoughts on this?’ I’m sure Tommy had that with coach Kelly.

“Now, coming here for myself, it made me grow. I don’t have that head coach to go and bounce things off of. I got to depend on myself and the staff. That’s what’s going to be great for Tommy. He’s going to have to depend on himself and those guys surrounding him. I did my most growing this year as a coordinator, as a leader, and this is going to be a great opportunity for him.”

Freeman insisted he will defer to Rees on nearly anything offensively, be it a scheme or a personnel decision, particularly when Rees is convicted in his stance. He will also look to spend more time with Rees and the offensive staff than he did last year, not so much because a head coach should but because Freeman sees another avenue for his own personal growth.

“It’s going to help me as a coach,” he said. “I’ve been on the defensive side of the ball my entire life. It was something I saw Luke Fickell do and it’s something I’m going to probably do, spend more time with those guys to learn ball and to be able to give them input from a defensive point of view.”

OFFENSIVE RECRUITING
The de-commitment of consensus four-star receiver CJ Williams (Mater Dei High School; Santa Ana, Calif.) aside, Notre Dame has kept its offensive recruiting class together through the Kelly departure and subsequent transition with the early signing period now mere hours away, and Williams’ departure could be foreseen even before Kelly left for LSU.

Freeman made it a priority to visit as many offensive recruits as he could after last week’s public introduction as head coach, knowing the defensive ones were already more familiar with him.

“I have not had the opportunity to really develop a relationship with those guys and their families, so that was a huge point of emphasis,” Freeman said. “If there was a defensive commit that was nearby, I wanted to see them, too.

“People love Notre Dame and these kids are committed to Notre Dame because of what Notre Dame is going to do for the future. That was really, really refreshing to hear from my point of view. This isn’t about a coach. It’s not about any other reason than they know what Notre Dame is going to do for their athletic career and the future.”

INJURY UPDATES
Kelly was long known to be comically optimistic about players’ timelines recovering from injuries. Hearing that for 12 years made it easier to deduce what reality is. Freeman’s optimism, pessimism or realism is not yet known. So when it comes to these updates, the only option is to take him at face value and remember these quotes to provide such context moving forward.

— Freshman offensive tackle Blake Fisher (meniscus injury in September) worked out with the team over the weekend, but may not be cleared before the Fiesta Bowl against No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) on Jan. 1.

“I don’t know if he’ll be full-go, released for the game yet, but to see him out there during teams reps is extremely encouraging.”

— Sophomore safety Ramon Henderson’s balky hamstring, injured at Stanford to close the regular season, should be cleared before New Year’s Day.

“He ran full speed, but in a training session. He did not go full-go today, and that’s very precautionary on our part. We expect him to be full-go for the Fiesta Bowl.”

— Junior linebacker Marist Liufau (torn ACL in the preseason) may be back on the practice field, but there is no expectation of him taking contact this month.

COACHING CHANGES
Freeman expects his current staff — the one that coached Notre Dame through the entire season aside from Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian — to remain intact through the bowl game. Defensive analyst Nick Lezynski has picked up those special teams duties and also handles linebacker-specific responsibilities right now in Freeman’s stead.

That may be a name to remember.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Marcus Freeman’s youth matters as little as Notre Dame’s losses in ‘major’ bowls when he was a kid
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian will join Brian Kelly at LSU
Kyle Hamilton opts out of the Fiesta Bowl, ending Notre Dame career
Kyren Williams enters NFL draft, will forgo Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl appearance
Notre Dame pulls four-star offensive lineman out of Wisconsin

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame reserve safety Litchfield Ajavon enters the transfer portal
Brian Polian named special teams coordinator at LSU
2023 four-star CB Justyn Rhett commits to Notre Dame
Fr. Jenkins in Rome
2022 NFL Mock Draft
Sporting News 2021 College Football All-America Team
The Athletic’s college football All-America teams 2021
AP All-America team
How Diego Fagot’s quick-thinking energized Navy in savvy, accidental fake punt conversion
College football’s top 21 moments of the 2021 regular season
Transfer portal causing college football coaches to mull changes to recruiting calendar