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Friday at 4: A shortened honeymoon doesn’t change the reasons for Notre Dame’s marriage to Marcus Freeman

Notre Dame did not hire Marcus Freeman for this September. The Irish obviously did not expect to start the season 0-2; they hoped to pull off the upset in Columbus to open the season. But taking Notre Dame up a level in college football was never about this month, as disappointing as it has already been.

Freeman was promoted for last December and this coming December. As much as recruiting rankings do not guarantee success — insert a Texas A&M reference here — success in wooing high schoolers is a prerequisite to winning a Playoff game. Those hand-in-hand struggles defined Brian Kelly’s time in South Bend as much as his record-setting 113 wins did.

Freeman’s 0-3 start as a head coach presents quite a dichotomy to Kelly’s time, as Freeman helped Notre Dame retain the No. 6 recruiting class last cycle and has put together the No. 3 class thus far this year, per rivals.com, even if he has not yet won a single game.

Recruiting success is not enough for a head coach — again, insert a Texas A&M reference here — but the issues plaguing the Irish date back much further than Freeman. A baffling dearth of receivers has origins in recruiting failures as far back as 2019, when Notre Dame did not sign a single receiver once Cam Hart became a cornerback. Of the three signed in 2020, two quickly transferred and the third, Xavier Watts, spent spring practices and most of the preseason working at safety.

Compounding those follies, the Irish have five fewer receivers available now than Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees expected to enjoy when Freeman was promoted. Between injury (Avery Davis, Joe Wilkins, Deion Colzie) and late de-commitments, Notre Dame’s already-thin depth chart was essentially halved.

RELATED READING: On the long-term silver lining to Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth

That roster calamity has nothing to do with Freeman, just as the university’s delayed entry into the transfer portal does not. These hurdles, in fact, are what Notre Dame hired Freeman to overcome and/or change.

But they were never going to be cleared this September.

Kelly took a program bereft of any consistency or universal direction and turned it into one of the country’s best with a floor envied by about 120 teams. That took the better part of 12 seasons, and still, its ceiling was not comparable to Alabama’s, Georgia’s, Ohio State’s or Clemson’s. In Kelly’s mind, it did not even compare to LSU’s. Without that ceiling, it was difficult to ever portray the Irish as a national title contender in 2022, even heading into the top-five matchup at Ohio State or exiting that tight loss.

Freeman was never going to raise that ceiling this offseason. Such roster construction would have been impossible in nine months. But that task is what Notre Dame hired him for in due time.

Deep down, Freeman knows that, but any competitor will lose sleep over an 0-2 start. The Irish veterans are more frustrated than anyone, as was quite visible at the end of the 26-21 loss to Marshall a week ago. Given the players’ support played a role in Freeman’s promotion, some may feel these losses reflect poorly on their endorsement. Playing against Cal (2:30 ET; NBC) with that worry on their minds would not serve anyone.

“If you continue to listen to all the voices out there that have opinions about what you’re doing, or what we’re doing as a football program, you will feel the weight of the world,” Freeman said Thursday. “Focus on the things that matter to dictate the outcome on Saturday. That’s what I want the pressure to be on.

“What things truly dictate the outcome of a game, and if we continue to focus on those things, we don’t have to worry about added pressure from the outside.”

The available players dictate the outcome of a game, and quarterback injury aside, it should be remembered no team is as good or as bad as its last game. Notre Dame is better than it showed against the Herd, though that loss curtailed any lingering honeymoon period for Freeman.

But as is said before many a honeymoon, “It is not about the wedding, it is about the marriage.”

The Irish marriage to Freeman was always intended to last past the honeymoon phase. That ending sooner than expected does not change the underlying fact. Notre Dame did not hire Marcus Freeman with worries about this month, and worries this month do not change the long-term charge for the 36-year-old head coach.

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