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Marcus Freeman: 'The Gold Standard' Notre Dame assistant driven for success

Notre Dame's defensive coordinator is on a track to becoming a head coach. It's a matter of when, not if, say those who know him best.
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Of course, Jim Tressel remembers Marcus Freeman arriving at Ohio State.

Tressel still sees the earnest young man, with the unflinching drive out of Ohio prep powerhouse Wayne High School.

Too, Tressel recalls Freeman arriving to begin his Buckeyes' career having bulked up – a bit too much.

It's still a running joke between the two to this day.

“He's so much fun, and one story that pops into my mind, he always gets mad when bring it up, is when he came to Ohio State, and I think he came early from high school,” said Tressel, the legendary coach who guided Ohio State to the 2002 national championship and college football's first-ever 14-0 team. “He looked at the press guide, watched us play. So he thought he needed to get a lot bigger. And he probably came in too big. We teased him when he showed up he looked more like a middle guard than a linebacker. We've had a lot of fun with that through the years.

“But that's one of my fond memories: is that he made the typical mistake but man, he fixed it quick and became really good for us.”

Tressel's recollection strikes today at the coach-father-husband-professional-recruiter that is Freeman.

Last year's most-sought-after defensive coordinator on the college market and this season further burnishing his status as future head coach, Freeman is, well, really good at more than just running a defense.

“If you consistently work at something, you're going to get the reward,” Freeman said. “And that's what we've been doing; we've been working. We're going to try to outwork everybody.”

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK

Which means typically Freeman begins his day around 5:30 a.m., with his own lifting session coming 30 minutes later and the remaining time in his morning consisting of film study and preparation before Notre Dame's staff meeting.

It's become commonplace for Freeman, as well as Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, to be among the last ones to exit the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

Players notice.

“Coach Freeman's defense, each and every week, on Monday, Sunday, the coaches work really hard for their game plans,” said Irish breakout-defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola. “We come in there, we really do prepare ourselves really well each week on the game plan. The guys in the d-line room, we take it really, really personal.

“We see Coach Freeman, Coach (Mike) Elston staying late. I get in in the morning sometimes super-early, 7, and they're here. I leave sometimes after I do my homework, 10 o'clock, they're here. It's only right for us to go dive in 150% into that game plan and execute for our coaches.”

Notre Dame skipper Brian Kelly, now the program's all-time winningest coach with 106 victories, sees Freeman developing an authentic bond – with the Fighting Irish's defensive players as well as others in the program.

"He's got a great relationship with his players,” Kelly said. “Anytime a new coach comes in, I think it's about developing relationships, which he began that process in the spring and continues to build that throughout the season.

"It's about consistency, relationships, trust and our process and delivering it consistently on a week-to-week basis.”

FREEMAN'S FORMULA

What's Freeman's formula for success? His own constantly evolving recipe.

Freeman's approach is described by those inside the 'Gug' as “intentional, purpose-driven.” There are team-building games that often unfold in front of the entire defensive squad; mini-basketball shoot-arounds or darts.

Sometimes, it's the 'Got Gold' version of how well a player knows his coach. Or vice versa.

Another time it's defensive staff members standing in front of their charges, holding heavy, monogramed 'ND' dumbbells while coaches and players answer questions and learn more about each other.

"I sit in all of the team meetings on defense,” Kelly says, “and I get a chance to listen to him talk to the entire unit. He's on point. There's a good rapport. There's great camaraderie and really good morale. We're still building. We're at about the halfway point of year one with Marcus Freeman leading this defense. Stay tuned. There's going to be some good stuff to follow."

There's already a following of Cincinnati-area high school coaches still tuning in to Freeman's ascendance, still picking the brain of the former Kent State and Purdue assistant who always has time to talk ball.

“Marcus stood out to me every since he started recruiting Cincinnati,” said Anderson High School coach Evan Dreyer, who's consistently developed top-tier college prospects and burst onto the prep scene as a 22-year-old head coach – one of the youngest in the nation. “He's just genuinely a great guy about recruiting and relationships, and Marcus is genuine, real. He's worrying about the health of players, checking on them, and helping out high school coaches. Even at Purdue and then to Cincinnati, his door was open. If you had a question, no matter what he always called back, always answered a text.”

Like Freeman's Notre Dame schedule, Dreyer recalls Freeman's responses coming at all hours of the day.

“He was available before practice, after practice, late nights,” said Dreyer, who's won nearly 70% of his game and honed his Raptors program into consistent postseason participants. “Whether it was phone calls from myself and other coaches around the city, he was just one of the good guys in the profession who always answered back. As soon as he could.

“I also have great respect for Marcus due to his growth at Purdue. I love coaches who have struggled, improved and are humble to talk about it.”

Freeman's authenticity is as prevalent as his sideline-leaps celebrating his defense's big plays.

And while undeniably still growing into Freeman's hyper-aggressive, killer-hornets approach, Notre Dame's defense is seeing real results despite missing a trio of linebackers from camp and opening-game injuries.

The Irish rank No. 3 nationally with 10 interceptions, tie for No. 5 in defensive scoring with a pair of pick-six touchdowns and No. 6 with 15 turnovers – two off the Irish's 12-game 2020 total and already eclipsing last season's seven interceptions. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on just 42% of their red-zone forays (10-for-24) midway through Notre Dame's 5-1 season.

Freeman's defense is not merely some attacking unit, void of structure; it's simply that Freeman instills his core beliefs – 'The Gold Standard' – to challenge all of his players to have “effort, attitude, and a nasty intent to play ball.”

“I think it creates ownership,” Freeman explained. “In (a practice) walk-through, I said, 'What do you guys want to do with this? Here's our tool box. What do you want to do?' And then let them make a decision.

“Because in a game, it's never going to be exactly like you see it on film. So if you give those guys ownership now, in practice, then in a game they can make [decisions]. 'Coach, we haven't seen this formation. I know what I need to do. I'm going to make a call.'”

SPEAKING OF CALLS

Dreyer and other prep – or college – coaches aren't the only football lifers making calls to Freeman.

On any given candidates list for almost any vacant or potentially vacant job, Freeman's name is almost certain to be jotted or typed on an athletics director's or a search firm's notes.

Old Dominion and Illinois are schools to take a run at giving Freeman his first-ever head coaching job.

LSU, as well as multiple Big Ten institutions, are among those programs left standing with an unused, nearly blank check in efforts to secure Freeman as their defensive play-caller.

Despite his very public courting of Freeman in January, Ed Orgeron LSU program is remembered as brides-maid to Kelly's Irish in their respective pursuits.

Tressel, the Youngstown State president with four Football Championship Subdivision national titles from his early-career 15-year reign at the school, knows more calls are coming for Freeman.

He's been accepting those inquiries now for years.

“When it first started happening, Marcus was awfully young,” said Tressel, who noted Freeman and his coaching mentor, Luke Fickell, share not only their Buckeyes' pasts but also a synergistic approach to coaching. “The first thing I wanted people to know is that he was mature beyond his years. I said don't worry about his chronological age because his emotional age and maturity level is outstanding. Then of course there is the whole part of how well he connects with students and families. I've talked to a lot of universities about him as a future head coach; what they all love is how hard he studies game, how humble he is, and how much cares for players.

“I just think one day he's going to be an outstanding head coach. Like anything else, you've got to hope the place you get your opportunity is a good marriage, a good match. He's not going to rush off into things. It's the same way Luke has done.”

RECRUITING IMPACT

The work done for Notre Dame on the recruiting trail is not alone attributable to Marcus Freeman.

After all, Tommy Rees is center in the Irish having their quarterback of the future on campus now in freshman Tyler Buchner, a budding dual-threat star from San Diego.

Veteran Mike Elston is wearing the recruiting coordinator cap again after a strong run in the post from Brian Polian.

The core group of behind-the-scenes Notre Dame staffers – Bill Rees, a legend in the game with deep personnel experience at both the collegiate and pro levels runs the program's scouting department; key figure in the eventual signing of Joe Alt who's coming off his first career start as a true freshman at left tackle for the Irish. Dave Peloquin is the program's director of player personnel and remains in South Bend despite multiple entreaties for employment elsewhere; Aaryn Kearney is the seventh-year director of recruiting, his previous efforts key in helping the Irish advance to the College Football Playoff in both 2018 and 2020.

Still, the Irish's 2022 class now is ranked in the top-five nationally by two major services. ESPN considers 13 of Notre Dame's pledges among the top 300 players in the nation, 16 of them four-star prospects.

There are more resources in the department as well. Freeman's first move upon accepting the Notre Dame defensive coordinator post was making clear he also was bringing with him Chad Bowden, son of legendary Major League Baseball executive-turned-media-personality Jim Bowden.

Dre Brown's arrival into a recruiting/analyst role from the University of Tennessee is another recent staff enhancement.

“They all play a pivotal role in recruiting, whether it be on recruiting weekends, we had a huge one against Cincinnati,” Kelly said. “The organization: Mackenzie Zanow, who does our on-campus (recruiting). Mackenzie does an incredible job. There's so many pieces to this. It's such a large organization right now. There's so many moving pieces from Bo (Savage), who works in our digital media, Reilly Fangman, who handles things on a day-to-day basis with our recruiting staff and ambassadors. You mentioned Bill Rees and DP (Dave Peloquin), Aaryn Kearney, there's just so many (people) that are involved in this.

"But I will point out that Chad (Bowden) and Dre (Brown), they kind of keep things together for us while we're on the field. They are recruiting during those practice hours. They're on the phone with recruits. They're talking to them, staying in touch while we're preparing our football team.”

Kelly sees the roles as requisite in this constant-attention era of recruiting.

"It's this high-touch, high-contact (approach) that's required now,” Kelly says. “You can't have these lapses where you're not heard from for two or three days or a couple of weeks. There has to be this high contact all the time and that's what our staff is doing a really good job.

"They're keeping us on task. I get a text list every morning in terms of what texts I need to get out. It's a pretty deep organizational goal that everybody has in mind in terms of making sure that recruiting continues to stay at its best during the season as well."

Bowden is at Notre Dame because of belief in and loyalty to Freeman; otherwise Bowden could still be director of recruiting for the top-five Bearcats.

The unflinching belief in Bowden also reveals the coach's own prioritizing of recruiting – Freeman learned sign language while at Cincinnati to better connect in a more genuine manner with a prospect - and its foundational elements to the program Freeman eventually will build as head coach.

“He's awesome, man; he relates to those kids,” said Freeman, his steadfast approach shaped by his U.S. Air Force veteran father, Michael, and his Korean mother, Chong, who were married after Freeman's deployment to South Korea in the late-1970s. “I mean, he relates to them. He can have conversations with them about maybe Madden (video games) or whatever they're doing in their lives that maybe coaches don't do. But he really pushes us as a coaching staff to say, 'Hey, man, I know we're in fall camp. But we gotta stay on track. Mondays, we gotta do this. Tuesdays, we gotta do this. Wednesdays, we gotta do this.'

“And that's where, to me, you can make gains is by consistent communication. He helps us to get those high school coaches to have those kids call us. He's done a great job, but the momentum is attributed to the constant work at it.”

Just as Tressel remembers, all these years later Freeman still is expanding; this time, it's Freeman's horizons in the coaching profession.