In Al Golden, Notre Dame and Marcus Freeman found a like-minded ‘partner’

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Marcus Freeman and Al Golden made two things very clear during Wednesday’s press conference announcing all of Notre Dame’s new assistant coaches, including Golden as the new defensive coordinator. First of all, something Freeman needed to repeat as he was asked repeatedly, Golden was not hired to simply run the exact same system Freeman employed in 2021.

Secondly, Golden might need a little bit more time to get over Sunday’s loss in the Super Bowl as the Cincinnati Bengals’ linebackers coach.

“Still trying to recover from it, to be honest with you,” Golden said. “Everybody says when you lose that game, it’s really hard to recover. I didn’t have much time to recover. I landed at 8:30 Monday night, went in and saw everybody that I had to see, and I was here [Tuesday] afternoon working.”

Freeman and Golden spoke throughout December and January on Zoom, gauging Golden’s interest in the opening while trying to not infringe on his duties as the Bengals surged into the postseason. He made one quick visit to South Bend after the conference championship games, but otherwise, his focus understandably stayed on the offensive challenges ahead of Cincinnati. Freeman never had to really sell Golden; that occurred in early December when Freeman first got the job.

Golden watched Freeman’s introductory press conference after the chaotic first week of December and pretty quickly recognized the allure and possibility of moving to Notre Dame.

“I told my wife, ‘I share his values,’” Freeman said. “I listened to his press conference and said that would be a place that would get me back (into college coaching). … I was listening to Marcus and I told my wife, Kelly, ‘I don’t really have to change to be a partner with that guy right there.’”

“Partner” will be the keyword in coordinating the defense. Freeman does not want Golden to be a “yes” man; hiring a coach with 10 years of college head coaching experience was done to avoid that exact possibility. But Freeman does not want Golden to tear down what was a successful defense, either.

“I was also looking for a person that didn’t want to come in here and just drop this playbook and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing,’” Freeman said. “Al Golden was a guy who said, ‘Let me evaluate what you are doing, let me evaluate your players and let’s put together the best scheme.

“Ultimately, he is the defensive coordinator and I want to make sure everyone understands that. Al Golden is the defensive coordinator. Marcus Freeman is not the defensive coordinator. He has to take this thing over.”

Freeman toed that same line a year ago, taking over a defense so successful it propelled Clark Lea into an SEC head coaching job, but one that was more conservative than Freeman’s past preferences. The transformation from one to the other did not occur overnight, and it did not occur seamlessly, but in the end, the Irish played more three-man fronts than they had previously and wreaked more havoc than they had previously.

“The ability to come in and to adapt to what our players know is a huge benefit for our players,” Freeman said. “My job is to always take care of our players. This will be their third defensive coordinator in three years. If you talk about three defensive schemes in three years, that’s difficult. It’s tough.”

That is where Golden’s experience fits. As Freeman said, “There’s only so many different ways you can play defense.”

If the coach adapts to the previous terminology, that can ease some changes in scheme. And some of those changes in scheme may not even be necessary.

“It’s like moving into a new neighborhood,” Golden said. “Don’t just take the fence down, because you don’t like the fence. You got to find out why the fence is there.

“That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re not going to start saying, we’re going to do this if there’s no meaningful purpose for that. There’s obviously great things that Marcus and that system have executed both here and previously, so let’s draw on that.”

Golden indicated that would continue to include both three-down and four-down looks, the type of multiple-look fronts that Freeman emphasized upon arriving a year ago.

“You need that,” Golden said. “We did it in both Detroit and in Cincinnati. There’s a lot of things there that we can build on.”

It did not take Golden long to come to that conclusion. It just took a while for him to be available to be hired.