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The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2021 -- No. 3: Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame

Rare is a coordinator hire hit with National Championship or Bust expectations. This is one of those occasions.

Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2021 season and beyond.

Who: Marcus Freeman

Title: Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach, Notre Dame

Previous stop: Cincinnati defensive coordinator/linebackers coach (2017-20)

Why he's important: You want to see a coach damn someone with faint praise? Here was Steve Sarkisian, discussing his hire of Terry Joseph as his defensive passing game coordinator at Texas, explain how Joseph got that job in part due to his Xs and Os work against the then-Alabama offensive coordinator.

"I was really impressed, obviously, with our game against Notre Dame and just the way they defended us compared to everybody else in the country."

Thing is, Sarkisian wasn't necessarily wrong in his praise. Alabama led the nation (min.: 4 games) with 48 points per game and finished among the top five with 541.6 yards per game and 7.81 per play. Their 31 points were a season low, and their 437 total yards their lowest after the season opener. Notre Dame did defend Alabama well. (A week later, Alabama would drop 52 points and 621 yards on Ohio State.)

Except it didn't really matter. The best scheme Alabama encountered all season long was only enough to slow the Tide down to a moderate jog, and only then after the first three drives in which the Alabama moved through the Fighting Irish like they weren't even there: 

-- 7 plays, 79 yards, touchdown
-- 5 plays, 97 yards, touchdown
-- 6 plays, 84 yards, touchdown

At that point Alabama was up 21-7 and put it on cruise control on their way to a 31-14 victory.

How do you explain that gap? It isn't Xs and Os; Sarkisian told us that himself. It's talent.

Such is Marcus Freeman's charge at Notre Dame. 

Getting to the championship round is no longer the objective in South Bend. The Irish have done that three times in Brian Kelly's 11 seasons, losing 42-14 to Alabama in 2012, 30-3 to Clemson in 2018 and 31-14 to Alabama in 2020. The 2012 loss came in the BCS championship game; the '18 and '20 setbacks came in CFP semifinals to teams that would win their respective championship games by 28 points apiece.

Notre Dame is among that group of programs that are among the very best in the country, yet oh so obviously behind the very best. They're in the Hall of Very Good. That might be enough for some people, but not Kelly. He told us himself after the Rose Bowl loss on New Year's Day, firing a preemptive strike against those who were already casting his Irish teams as heirs to the early 1990s Buffalo Bills. 

"We're going to continue to battle, continue to recruit, and continue to put ourselves in this position, to win a national championship," Kelly said after that game. "We're going to keep getting here. We're going to keep banging at it. You guys watched the game, didn't you? They made plays on the perimeter. We battled. We were right there. I'm sorry if you don't like it." 

Freeman was Kelly's top choice when Clark Lea took the Vanderbilt job in mid December. The choice came down to Notre Dame and LSU for Freeman, his wife Joanna and their six children. (Freeman also has a daughter from a previous relationship.) 

"We got off the plane from LSU and he said, 'You're going to make this decision based on facts. You're not going to make this decision based on money, off of (the) SEC, you're just going to make this decision based off facts.' And then you go back to the conversation in his office," Freeman said. "Within the first two minutes he had mentioned all six kids by name. (Wife) was done. He knew you get her, there's a great chance you're getting me."

That soft touch in recruiting has served Notre Dame well, and it clearly worked on Freeman himself.

"When you're at Notre Dame you're like, 'Man, this is Notre Dame. We want to come.' When you're at LSU it's, 'Man, this is LSU. The SEC. We want to go.' We made a decision we were not going to commit to any place without going home and decompressing. And that's where, to me, Notre Dame is different. I've been at places where you bring kids in on official visits and you're going to try to get them to say yes before they leave. At Notre Dame, what I'm realizing after the official visit cycle of the summer, 'You want to go home and think about it? Go home."

But it doesn't work on everyone, and Freeman himself has been integral in modernizing Notre Dame's approach to compliment Kelly's it-speaks-for-itself soft sale. Speaking to the Notre Dame Club of Chicago last month, Freeman recalled a conversation with a colleague where Oklahoma's ChampU BBQ, which had just happened a week prior, where the Sooners had arranged a lineup of luxury sports cars to make even an Emerati oil prince jealous.

When Freeman's colleague motioned in the direction of We don't need to do that kind of stuff here, Freeman responded, "Oh yeah we do. That's what gets the young people here. Let's get them here, and then let's make them make (the decision) off the facts. You're not going to come to Notre Dame because we had a car here, but if that's going to attract you to South Bend and our campus, I know when you leave there's no competition. Let's do whatever it takes to get them here."

And, to be clear, Freeman is right. Notre Dame can't afford to be picky about the methods it may take to get elite defensive recruits to campus, because not enough have been waking the echoes of late. Ten Irish defenders have been drafted over the past three years, which is good but not enough to keep up with the best offenses in college football -- particularly in the secondary, where only corner Julian Love was among the first 100 names called.

Notre Dame defensive draft picks, 2019-21


Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah




Daelin Hayes




Adetokunbo Ugundeji




Julian Okwara




Troy Pride




Khalid Kareem




Alohi Gilman




Jerry Tillery




Julian Love




Dru Tranquill




Notre Dame's 2022 class ranks second in the country as of this writing, with a few caveats. First, with 21 commits the Irish are much closer to filling up than No. 3 Ohio State (14 pledges) and No. 4 Alabama (13). Second, while defensive players account for three of the top four and four of the top six commits, the highest-rated defensive back is the 11th-highest rated player in the class, corner Jaden Mickey. That's not a slight on Mr. Mickey, a 4-star and among 247Sports' 250 best players in the country, but it's a testament to the margins Notre Dame is attempting to close in late December and early January. The best offenses will be armed with the elite of the elite at wide receiver and quarterback. 

Previous installments: No. 15: Sonny Cumbie, Texas Tech | No. 14: Travis Williams, UCF | No. 13: Liam Coen, Kentucky | No. 12: Jess Simpson, Miami | No. 11: Tim Banks, Tennessee | No. 10: Mike Bobo, Auburn | No. 9: Jeff Grimes, Baylor | No. 8: Mike Tressel, Cincinnati | No. 7: Mike Yurcich, Penn State | No. 6: Deland McCullough, Indiana | No. 5: Bill O'Brien, Alabama | No. 4: The Michigan staff

Notre Dame's front held up against Alabama's running game in the Rose Bowl but the passing game was a total mismatch. Mac Jones went 25-of-30 for 297 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions; DeVonta Smith caught seven of those balls for 130 yards and three touchdowns. In the 2018 Cotton Bowl, freshman Trevor Lawrence went 27-of-39 for 327 yards and three touchdowns; Justyn Ross caught six passes for 148 yards and two scores. 

It's unrealistic to expect an improved Notre Dame to shut down passing games littered with first round picks, but the Irish can't dine out on 70 percent completions for nine yards an attempt, multiple touchdown passes and no interceptions. 

(Also, it goes without saying Notre Dame needs to improve offensively in championship games as well. Thirty-one combined points those two losses to Alabama plus a third to Clemson won't get it done.) 

Setting recruiting aside, Freeman will get the absolute most out of the 11 -- err, 22 -- on the field. His 2020 Cincinnati defense didn't finish fourth in yards per play by accident. 

"We call it the golden standard," Freeman told the Chicago crowd. "It's three things."

1. Challenge everything. "The new generation wants to know why. My dad was 26 years in the Air Force. My dad said turn right, I turned right. This younger generation ain't quite like that. I embrace that as a coach. I tell our coaches, 'If a kid asks you why and you can't give him the answer, then maybe we need to reevaluate why we're doing something.'" This also applies to how Freeman expects the Irish to play on a down-to-down basis. "We're going to pressure, we're going to play man coverage, we're going to hang our hat on being aggressive. 

2. Unit strength. Freeman's first coordinator job came at 30 years old. That inflated his ego. His first defense finished 94th. That deflated it. The 2017 season taught him, "I no longer need to be the guy in front of everybody saying, 'This is what the D-line does, this is what the corners do, this is what the safeties do, this is what the linebackers do.' No. We have great coaches. We've got four head coaches on defense."

3. Fundamentals. "You're going to see us play with unbelievable effort and attitude. If we don't play hard, we can't play. We have 1As and 1Bs. We don't have 2s. We need 22 guys because if you're going to play with that effort and attitude that we demand, you're not going to be able to play 60 plays. You can't. It's physically impossible."

Three of Kelly's four defensive coordinators left for bigger jobs: Lea for Vanderbilt, Mike Elko to a $2+ million a year contract at Texas A&M (it was heavily implied that experience led Notre Dame to become more competitive in luring Freeman away from LSU) and Bob Diaco to the Connecticut job. Freeman will almost certainly make it four in five. Watch a snippet of his 45-minute performance and tell me otherwise.

The Marcus Freeman era of Notre Dame's defense will most likely work for Freeman. Barring a total collapse, the man is a future Power 5 head coach. But for it to fully work for Notre Dame, Freeman must leave with a ring on his finger.