Things We Learned: Notre Dame didn’t hire Marcus Freeman for this recruiting class, but his effect on it was undeniable anyway

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No coaching decision should be made solely with one recruiting cycle in mind. The minds of individual 17- and 18-year-olds are too fickle to stake an entire program on their claimed intentions. But keeping Notre Dame’s class of 2022 together was assuredly somewhere on Jack Swarbrick’s list of priorities as he mulled promoting Marcus Freeman to head coach from defensive coordinator two weeks ago.

Wherever that ranked among maintaining program culture, finding the right fit at the University and game-day experience, Freeman fulfilled that priority on Wednesday and, more accurately, in the last two weeks.

The Irish held onto 20 of their 23 commitments and added one more since Freeman was officially announced as Notre Dame’s head coach, a retention rate that Oklahoma, Oregon and USC would all ogle at after similarly late coaching transitions.

“What you learned about this class, the majority of these kids, they were committed to Notre Dame,” Freeman said Wednesday, the start of the annual early signing period and, for all intents and purposes, the only day of note in the three-day window. “It wasn’t about one person, it wasn’t about who is the head coach, it was about Notre Dame and those kids that love Notre Dame.”

That is an expected piece of humility from Freeman. Sure, many of the 20 commits may have remained with the Irish regardless of who Swarbrick hired, but if it was as simple as Freeman implied, he would not have needed to cover 14 states and 8,000 miles in the last two weeks to firm up many of those commitments, focusing on the offensive players whom he had not previously interacted much with.

Freeman’s efforts and accessibility begat stability.

And his prioritization of recruiting, including emphasizing his own availability, should beget elevated rankings, no small feat considering this class ranks No. 7, per rivals.com, even after two defections of receivers within the last week, including losing three-star Amorion Walker to Michigan on Wednesday. All indications are they would have both exited the class even if Brian Kelly was still at the Irish helm, but doing so after the abrupt transition exacerbates the optics of the de-commitments.

Receiver is the biggest hole in this class, and one that is cause for immediate concern at Notre Dame, no offense to actual signee Tobias Merriweather, a lanky four-star. Walker and CJ Williams, the No. 6 receiver in the class and No. 46 overall prospect, per rivals.com, would have both been in the Irish receiving rotation next year. After all, that rotation desperately needed two freshmen this season just to finish the year with enough hands to operate offensively, down to only four healthy receivers in November.

But that concern does not need to elevate to panic. Not in college football in 2021.

Freeman’s recruiting is not done, even if this recruiting class is. He now turns his focus to Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy, both pondering returning to South Bend for their final season of eligibility, as well as to Joe Wilkins and Avery Davis, both more likely to return after injuries cut short their 2021’s.

“Those are top priority for us, to try to recruit those guys to come back to Notre Dame,” Freeman said.

That too may have been on Swarbrick’s list of priorities, although again further down the list. Staking a hire of this magnitude on the decisions of a handful of 21- and 22-year-olds is too short-sighted in many regards, but knowing the return of many of those players could turn 2022 into a special season is not something to write off entirely.

Beyond Austin and Lenzy, Freeman may look for help in the transfer portal, even if that is still a small needle to thread at Notre Dame.

“This could be (through) the transfer portal,” he said. “We have a little bit of wiggle room to look at, ‘Hey, what roster needs do we need immediately?’ Is it another high school kid, or is it somebody that we can go into the portal and address with a guy that has some college experience?”

No matter how Freeman looks to fill that hole in this class and the roster as a whole, this recruiting class still stands out. A consensus four-star running back — the No. 5 running back in the country — is somehow not discussed enough. The Irish may have the best collection of offensive linemen in the country, boasting a quartet of four-stars and a quick-footed in-state product who should quickly shore up depth concerns at center.

“We have to keep our strengths our strengths,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “The tight end class, the offensive line class that we put together, I’d put up against anyone in the country. As a collective staff and group, we did a great job of closing that class out.”

Immediately after Freeman’s introductory press conference on Dec. 6, he and Rees flew to Wisconsin to secure guard Billy Schrauth’s commitment, the one added piece to the class since Kelly flew south. From Wisconsin, Freeman and Rees flew to Washington to meet with Merriweather, his second interaction with a Notre Dame head coach in eight days, the last recruit Kelly visited as word leaked he’d be jumping to LSU while he infamously had dinner with Merriweather’s family.

For the entire recruiting cycle, Freeman’s haul of linebackers underscored his recruiting acumen, but finally landing Schrauth after months of debate between the Irish and Wisconsin underscored Freeman’s off-field allure.

 Merriweather’s loyalty then speaks to the stability brought by Freeman. That wasn’t why he was hired, but for this week and this month, that stability and his accessibility may have been his most vital qualities.

“There’s no one in the program bigger than Marcus right now,” Rees said. “When you have the ability to say, ‘Hey, I have the head coach at any time, just reach out and he’s going to get back,’ that makes an impact. Those kids want to talk to the head coach.

“That builds a level of trust, that builds a level of importance and when they get here to campus it’s not a first introduction. It’s a relationship that’s already been built and strong. When you’re strong from the top-down, from the head coach to the coordinators to the position coach and then the support staff that surrounds them, when you have all levels supporting a recruit, that’s when they feel the family atmosphere that we’re going to have.

“His accessibility and his willingness at all hours to make himself available to those guys is going to go a long way.”

EARLY SIGNING PERIOD COVERAGE
Consensus four-star defensive end Aiden Gobaira
Consensus four-star safety Nolan Ziegler
Consensus three-star quarterback Steve Angeli
Consensus three-star defensive tackle Donovan Hinish, Kurt’s brother
Consensus four-star linebackers Jaylen Sneed and Joshua Burnham
Punter Bryce McFerson, former Wake Forest commit
Consensus four-star running back Jadarian Price
Tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden Staes
Consensus four-star defensive end Tyson Ford, the first commit to Marcus Freeman back in January
Cornerbacks Benjamin Morrison and Jayden Bellamy
Consensus four-star linebacker Niuafe Tuihalamaka, former USC commit
Consensus four-star receiver Tobias Merriweather, the only receiver in the class
Consensus four-star cornerback Jaden Mickey
Five offensive linemen complete Irish class of 2022, including quartet of four-stars