Leftovers & Links: On Marcus Freeman slipping into coach speak, the transfer portal, and an alternate Notre Dame reality in 2013

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
Getty Images

We are nearly into focusing on No. 5 Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup with No. 9 Oklahoma State on New Year’s Day (1 ET; ESPN), but a few bits from last week’s recruiting emphasis still warrant mention, in as much as they both bring future thoughts and they underscore the cyclical nature of all these conversations.

On the surface, new Irish head coach Marcus Freeman has little in common with Brian Kelly, even the Kelly of 12 years ago upon first arriving in South Bend. While Freeman is 35, Kelly was approaching 50. Freeman has never been a head coach, and Kelly had already spent decades as one. Freeman is Black and once had genuine NFL aspirations, making his story one many recruits can directly relate to. Kelly is an Irish Catholic from Boston who played Division II football.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Freeman was assuredly being sincere last week when he said he has long-term plans at Notre Dame, but Kelly said the same things throughout his tenure, including during the 2020 season.

“There’s always in college football the uncertainty of, ‘Who’s going to be the head coach?’” Freeman said. “Hopefully, [recruits] know that I plan to be here for a long time (or) until maybe (director of athletics Jack Swarbrick) or somebody forces me out of this place.”

This is not to call that sentiment into doubt so much as it is to point out how quickly a first-time head coach can slip into established coach speak.

“I want them to know that, ‘Hey, you’re going to know the head coach on a personal level, you’re going to know the leader in front of the room,’” Freeman said. “But also, that’s not why you come to Notre Dame. You come to Notre Dame because of the things Notre Dame will do for you, and the things that Notre Dame will do for you on the football field, and then once you’re done with this place.”

If not coach speak, Freeman has certainly learned the University’s preferred talking points.

At the least, he will not be arguing for some off-field allowances that a few have conjectured may have been sticking points with Kelly in recent years. Freeman’s counterpoint to opposing schools’ potential negative recruiting left little wiggle room to negotiate with Swarbrick.

“My answer to every kid that might have something planted in his head is, ‘Hey, we’re going to do things the hard way here.’ That’s the only answer there is,” Freeman said. “Whatever question they may have about Notre Dame, it’s, ‘Hey, is there an easier way to do it?’ I don’t care if it’s a living situation, I don’t care if it’s the location. ‘Is there an easier way to do it,’ and make sure these kids understand we’re going to do things the hard way.

“That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes us special, that everything here is a challenge.”

This was the furthest thing from coach speak, and it creates a reality where the 4-8 faceplant in 2016 could have instead interrupted Kelly’s tenure immediately after his first unbeaten regular season at Notre Dame.

The continued fervor of quarterback transfers across football will become a norm, if it hasn’t already, and prompted a reporter to ask offensive coordinator Tommy Rees if he ever pondered transferring during his playing career. Sure enough, Rees thought about it after Everett Golson spurred the Irish to the national championship game in 2012. After that loss, Rees saw little path toward starting again.

“I made the decision to stay,” he said last week. “My teammates were the most important thing to me, and I decided to stay, not knowing what my opportunity was going to be. …

“That’s not right or wrong or indifferent. That was just my decision. Graduating from this place was important to me, but I had other opportunities.”

After Golson was suspended for an academic transgression, Rees was indeed the 2013 starter, and the only other player to attempt a pass for Notre Dame that year was Andrew Hendrix, going 2-of-14 in eight games.

The Irish won five games by one possession that regular season, finishing 8-4. It does not feel like a stretch at all to suggest Notre Dame would have gone 4-8 or even 3-9 without Rees.

That may play a part in Rees’ approach to quarterback recruiting. He obviously wants the best players, but he also wants them to see that added value in choosing the Irish.

“We have to do a really good job of getting the quarterbacks here that resonate with this place and find a reason greater than themselves to be here,” he said. “Then we have to do a really good job, like we have, of creating a culture in the quarterback room where it’s really shared success. If one guy is out there making plays, we have to understand it took all five of us during the week in the preparation to get to that point.”

And that is part of the reason Notre Dame will delve only so far into the transfer portal. Both Rees and defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston pointed out the drawbacks to building too much of a roster through the portal.

“You can be supplementary with finding guys that way,” Rees said. “But you also have to be careful that you’re bringing in people who fit your culture and fit the competitive spirit here at Notre Dame.”

It is no coincidence the Irish have brought in three graduate transfers in the last two seasons. Their experience made not only that culture fit smoother but also their admissions process.

“You have to pick and recruit the guys that will academically be able to get into your school,” Elston said. “If they’re not grad transfers, it’s still a challenge for Notre Dame to send a new young person’s transcript over to admissions. It’s not like it’s an open door. It’s not free agency for Notre Dame.”

Back from the road, Marcus Freeman now looking for his ‘home’ at Notre Dame’s practices
Things We Learned: Notre Dame didn’t hire Marcus Freeman for this recruiting class, but his effect on it was undeniable anyway
Notre Dame’s offensive signees in the words of coordinator Tommy Rees
Notre Dame’s defensive signees in the words of Marcus Freeman and Mike Elston
Notre Dame LB Shayne Simon announces entry into transfer portal

Tommy Rees on staying: ‘I wanted to fight for Notre Dame’
How close was Tommy Rees to taking LSU? ‘Staying was a little more unknown’
Notre Dame LS Michael Vinson put on scholarship
‘Never seen anything like this’: Has college football’s free transfer killed the backup QB spot?
NIL abuse rises to forefront of college football recruiting
Four takeaways from college football National Signing Day 2021

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