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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s defense ‘freer’ under Freeman

Marcus Freeman


Comparing Marcus Freeman’s style and the success it has created to Clark Lea’s should not be taken as implying one is better than the other. As evidenced by their respective promotions this winter, each was one of the most sought-after coaching candidates in college football after the last few seasons.

Cincinnati’s and Notre Dame’s defenses have been two of the country’s best in recent years, but to hear current Irish linebackers discuss the shift in coaching styles this spring, those successes may be where the similarities end between Freeman and Lea. Both on and off the field, Lea is known for his deliberate, intellectual approach. His first hires at Vanderbilt have highlighted how outside the box his intellect often ventures. Freeman, meanwhile, prefers to play things more straightforward and, well, freer.

“Scheme-wise, really excited to play defense that’s less about scheme and more about playing football,” senior linebacker Paul Moala said Saturday after watching Notre Dame’s first spring practice and first under Freeman’s tutelage. “Coach Freeman emphasizes that point to our team, he wants us to play football, he wants us to play free, fast and physical. The players are behind that and they’re really excited about playing that and showcasing that on Saturdays.”

Emphasizing the “play free” too much may be lazy writing, but given senior linebacker Bo Bauer (pictured at top with Freeman) referred to his new defensive coordinator solely as “Coach Free” during Saturday’s Zoom session, the emphasis is hard to avoid.

“He’s a very effort-oriented guy,” Bauer said. “That’s one of the first things we have to talk about, he always wants high effort from us, but we just started focusing on football-specific ways such as the difference in block destruction and getting our job (done), but at the end of the day, he just wants us to play football and be free.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to play free and even if things don’t go exactly as planned, our effort and attitude will take over.”

Freeman arrives at Notre Dame from Cincinnati with a reputation for an aggressive defense, but the usual results of such an approach — turnovers, sacks, tackles for loss — were not notably more prevalent than the last couple years for the Irish under Lea.

Cincinnati sacks the last two seasons: 61 in 24 games, 2.54 per game.Notre Dame sacks the last two seasons: 65 in 25 games, 2.6 per game.

Cincinnati tackles for loss the last two seasons: 171 in 24 games, 7.13 per game.Notre Dame tackles for loss the last two seasons: 182 in 25 games, 7.28 per game.

Cincinnati turnovers forced the last two seasons: 47 in 24 games, 1.96 per game.Notre Dame turnovers forced the last two seasons: 45 in 25 games, 1.8 per game.

The results were similar, but the processes differed.

“Coach Lea is a great coach and he asked of us to know a lot of different rules and be very detail-oriented, which is really important to our process, but sometimes it was difficult to play with your natural instincts,” Bauer said. “It was a really good time for me to be able to learn how to be part of a unit and do one job. That was very important to my growth.”

Those rules and details may have inhibited players in cross-training, particularly among linebackers. Bauer is now working at Mike linebacker (middle) but expects to practice at Will (formerly known as Buck) soon, as well. Others will work at both Will and Rover while Freeman looks for the best alignment to deploy, and his emphasis on freedom should aid those additional reps.

“It’s not too hard to get down,” Moala said. “Freeman really emphasizes that he doesn’t want us thinking out on the field. He just wants us playing, playing smart. …

“The only difference that I see between Freeman and Lea is just scheme. It’s less scheme with coach Freeman and more playing football.”

That could all be spring platitudes or the natural excitement sparked by both the season and any change. It could be Lea’s discipline laid the foundation for Freeman’s freedom. But at the absolute least, it is a change.


Of course, Freeman has already spent time complimenting Lea’s work and Notre Dame’s defense the last few years. Only so much can be upgraded when taking over a unit that has been the driving force behind two Playoff appearances in the last three seasons.

The Irish acknowledged that with a spring practice hype video — has that ever existed before? — highlighting the defense’s recent history. Drue Tranquill’s quote after the 2017 Georgia game became a rallying cry for the next two seasons. Shaun Crawford’s touchdown-saving forced and recovered fumble at Michigan State in 2017 became the ultimate testimony to playing through the whistle on a given play. Lumping current stars Kyle Hamilton and Isaiah Foskey in a video that features Harrison Smith and Manti Te’o is a way to further motivate the 2021 unit.

Much like the highlights released this spring — with no media access, Notre Dame will doll out B-roll and a set of photos after each practice, both appreciated and obviously meticulously curated with intention — such a video should be taken for what it is, but in this instance, it is an entertaining few minutes that underscore both Lea’s success and Freeman’s intentions.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged his team had to take a weeklong pause during winter workouts due to an increase in positive COVID tests, part of why spring practice was delayed. As much as recent weeks have felt like the pandemic is coming to a close, it is not yet and an outbreak would halt Notre Dame’s spring practices in their tracks.

“I think our guys did such a great job during the year, they may have grown a little weary and maybe let their guard down a little bit while they were away from the building,” Kelly said. “But they’ve been really good. We’ve gotten back on track. We’ve had two and a half weeks of really good training leading into spring practice. … They got away from the routine a little bit maybe and maybe got a little bit sloppy, but that’s been cleaned up. I think they understand how important it is now to get these 15 practices in.”

Not yet a reality but still an absolute expectation, perhaps even in the next month, the universal one-time transfer waiver is on Kelly’s radar, but not in such a way that he expects it to become a detriment. As every player will be allowed to transfer one time without sitting the next year, many coaches fear a rampant come-and-go turnover process on their rosters. Setting aside that hypocrisy, it is more likely this merely formalizes what has largely become the norm since the graduate transfer exception was created.

If a player at Notre Dame anticipates graduating in 1-3 semesters, he may see a reason to push to that diploma before transferring.

“Our guys want to get a degree from Notre Dame, so they’re going to get their degree and then if they didn’t play enough football, then they’re going to look to play somewhere else,” Kelly said. “It’s not something that we spent a lot of time thinking about.”

Kelly and his staff will have to continue to monitor for incoming transfer possibilities, particularly given the success of cornerback Nick McCloud (North Carolina State) and receiver Bennett Skowronek (Northwestern) last year, and the likelihood Jack Coan (Wisconsin) starts at quarterback this season.

No matter how often the Irish pull in transfers, giving players another avenue to exercise authority over their own lives is a positive gained for all of college football.

Maybe this will be copy-and-pasted into every “Leftovers & Links” between now and May 1. Notre Dame’s spring finale will be broadcast on the streaming platform known as Peacock at 12:30 ET on May 1. Peacock is NBC’s version of every other video streaming platform you already depend on to rivet you such that you can’t tear your eyes away.

Given that this space is hosted and funded by a broadcast company with an exclusive contract with Notre Dame, let’s not go further into David Foster Wallace’s views on television than those exact word choices, and instead point out Peacock should be accessible the same way you get to those other streaming platforms.

Unlike NBCSN, where many Blue-Gold Games have been broadcast, Peacock will not cost anyone extra, as the 15th spring practice will be available via its advertisement-supported version. (Cue another DFW reference.)

And unlike NBCSN, Peacock also includes all of “Cheers,” so this space is now taking that as license to include as many Norm Peterson references as possible moving forward. Pass the beer nuts.

Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering spring practicesWhere Notre Dame was & is: Defensive lineWhere Notre Dame was & is: LinebackersWhere Notre Dame was & is: Defensive backsNotre Dame’s spring begins with questions aplenty on its defensive depth chartNotre Dame’s spring starts with QB competition, OL questions, Hamilton sidelined

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