Leftovers & Links: Defensive coordinator delay not a concern for Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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It has been two months since Marcus Freeman became Notre Dame’s head coach and the third-youngest FBS head coach in the country. To be precise, on Tuesday it will have been two months since the first reports of his hiring.

At the time, it seemed Freeman’s first coaching staff would largely be Brian Kelly’s last Irish coaching staff, with the last day of November and the first day of December filled with assistant after assistant announcing he would remain in South Bend rather than head to Baton Rouge. In the moment, it was seen as program-wide stability and continuity. What it should have been seen as was an immediate preference for Notre Dame’s success and Freeman’s potential over Kelly’s rebuild at LSU, however quick that endeavor may or may not be. It was not an absolute assurance of stability and continuity.

And as assistant after assistant has since departed — most recently, defensive line coach Mike Elston to Michigan and running backs coach Lance Taylor to Louisville to become offensive coordinator — that stability has diminished. With retrospect, those decisions make sense, especially when those initial announcements are viewed through a prism recognizing the difficult position each of those men was in on Dec. 1, awkward timing in the coaching carousel when they had no way to know what opportunities might come their way in the next two months.

Yet the one coaching position Freeman always knew he would have to fill remains unfilled, as of Monday morning: defensive coordinator.

Why?

Because there is no need to rush the hire, and given the NFL season ended only within the last few weeks, half the candidate pool was off-limits for interviews until recent weeks.

Notre Dame is not worrying about any defensive recruits signing on the dotted line this Wednesday, and any high school juniors the Irish are pursuing will have plenty of time to get to know a new defensive coordinator after Freeman puts on the initial charm during this stretch.

Furthermore, whomever Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator will be, he will not bring all that much change. There is every expectation, from both inside the program and out, that Freeman will want the core tenets of his defense to remain in place, understandable given that defense was a key piece of Freeman’s rapid ascension in recent years.

“I really feel like coach Freeman has a good idea of what a defensive coordinator should be, what his identity is going to be,” rising senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said last week. “I feel like coach Freeman is going to find someone that has the same identity, same thinking as he did as defensive coordinator.”

That identity worked well with the current Irish personnel, furthering the logic to keeping that scheme in place in 2022. Notre Dame recorded more sacks than it had at any point in the Kelly era and ranked No. 14 in the country by allowing only 19.7 points per game.

“I would like the same defense as I was able to produce in and get production off of,” Foskey said. “Whoever he finds, I feel like it’s going to be the same defense that he came in with.”

It is quite possible a new defensive coordinator hire is reported this week and announced by the University next week, timing that would give him five or six weeks of time on campus before spring practices start. That is the only genuine time constraint for Freeman to worry about bumping up against.

No, not that this hire would wait until mid-March, but that some veterans are already itching to start studying their playbooks.

“I just want a defensive coordinator so I can start studying the playbook,” fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer said. “I haven’t been able to do that yet, and I kind of want to get an idea of what we’re going to be playing like next year. For me, the sooner the better, but I know coach Free has to make the right decision.

“I’m ready to wait, but I’m also ready to work.”

SPEAKING OF ASSISTANT TURNOVER …
More be yet on the way for Notre Dame. When offensive coordinator Tommy Rees announced he was staying at his alma mater, there was a widespread expectation he would need to find a new receivers coach and an offensive line coach. Both became reality and both have already been filled.

Replacing Taylor was unexpected, as would be replacing tight ends coach John McNulty, who Rees played a key role in bringing to Notre Dame in 2020 in the first place, having worked with McNulty with the San Diego Chargers in 2016. On top of that, McNulty appeared to be the connection between Rees and newly-hired receivers coach Chansi Stuckey.

RECORD PURSUIT
This will come up a number of times between now and the Sept. 3 opener at Ohio State (215 days), but mentioning Bauer above brings it to front of mind today. He should break Kurt Hinish’s record of career games in an Irish uniform, set at 61 courtesy of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, though lowered by two by Hinish’s injury concerns in 2021.

Bauer has appeared in 51 games to date. Presuming health, he should be assured of reaching 64, and if he falls short, then fifth-year safety Houston Griffith will also have a chance at the top of the record books, with 49 career appearances to date.

Sixth-year offensive lineman Josh Lugg (48 games to date) could also have a vague chance of setting the record, though to hold it on his own he would not only need Bauer and Griffith to both miss a few games, but he would also need the Irish to reach the national championship game.

Perhaps a version of more notable, Lugg’s sixth year will guarantee him more wins while on Notre Dame’s roster than anyone else in history. No research needs to be done on this thought. The Irish have gone 54-10 in the last five years, and while Lugg may not have been on the travel roster for every road trip in 2017, he was in practice each week leading up to those games. Notre Dame’s 54 wins in the last five years are a program record, and a strong 2022 should then set the six-year mark, as well. Typically, that would be too obscure a timespan to note, but in Lugg’s case, it stands out.

SUPER BOWL ROOTING INTERESTS

INSIDE THE IRISH
Track records of young, first-time head coaches, a la Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman
Foskey’s senior season at Notre Dame will be measured by highest of expectations
Ohio State, North Carolina, USC all lose plenty to NFL draft early entry
Playing without Kyle Hamilton in 2021 left Notre Dame’s safeties ready for it in 2022
Experience along Notre Dame’s offensive line lies in the eye of the beholder as Lugg, Patterson and Hiestand return

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