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Players’ groundswell of support burgeons Marcus Freeman’s candidacy to be Notre Dame’s next coach

Eric Hansen explains to Dan Patrick why he was so surprised when Brian Kelly left Notre Dame and runs through candidates to fill the position.

It began not long after reports surfaced that head coach Brian Kelly was leaving Notre Dame for LSU. Irish players quickly took to Twitter to voice their support for the promotion of current defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach.

By Tuesday morning, it had grown to a social media storm, a barrage of tweets where players — former, current and likely future — threw their support behind the defensive coordinator with less than a year of play-calling experience at the Power Five level. Through pictures with Freeman and statements such as Isaiah Foskey’s “You know what to do,” the sentiment became clear, and it quickly gained momentum.

Foskey’s first career start came in this year’s season opener, and the junior defensive end now sits fourth all-time on the program’s single-season sacks list with 10. He has a decision to make about returning for a senior season or entering the NFL draft as a possible second-round pick. But even before his successful season under Freeman’s tutelage, Foskey held the coordinator in high regard.

Before the home opener against Toledo, Foskey discussed Freeman with Jac Collinsworth on the ND on NBC Podcast, praising the coach’s sense of humor and effectiveness.

“Every time he gets up in front of us, he’s all serious, but he always throws in little punchlines or little funny jokes here and there,” Foskey said. “He’s more of a chill defensive coordinator, but he always gets the point across.”

Many other players echoed the same feeling on Twitter, some of whom posted similar pregame photos with Freeman. Of those who have, some likely will be back next year, while some are expected to declare for the NFL Draft.

Kyle Hamilton falls into the latter category, expected to be Notre Dame’s first top-10 defensive pick since defensive tackle Bryant Young in 1994, but he chimed in to add his support on the “Inside the Garage” podcast, which the star safety co-hosts with cornerback Cam Hart, wide receiver Conor Ratigan and safety KJ Wallace.

At the 7:50 mark of their self-proclaimed “Emergency pod,” recorded late Monday night after the news broke, Hamilton clearly articulated his feelings about Kelly’s successor.

“I’ll put my vote out there for Marcus Freeman,” he said on the podcast. “Since he’s come in here, it feels like we’ve known him for years. He’s always even-keel, he’s the same guy every day. I think he’s a great leader, knows when to get on you, knows when to cheer you up, has a great sense of how we’re feeling. He’s a realist in terms of how he talks to us as a defense.”

Hamilton has praised Freeman for months; before the season opener at Florida State, he referred to the coordinator as “a light in the room every time he walks in.”

More generally, Freeman has been referred to as a “players’ coach” who is considered to be in tune with the college athletes he coaches. Before the Navy game, junior linebacker JD Bertrand praised Freeman’s ability to stay connected with the linebackers while also nurturing relationships with members outside of his own position group.

“So many times, especially when your coach can be the defensive coordinator, you might feel distant just in a sense that he’s trying to see big-picture things,” Bertand said. “But he does a great job connecting with the linebackers, but also just with every single teammate.”

While Freeman’s demeanor and outlook have earned him high praise from his players, they have also garnered extreme levels of support from many Irish defensive commits. Since the news broke that Kelly was headed to Baton Rouge, only one has decommitted: Devin Moore, a four-star defensive back from Florida.

Meanwhile, many have joined the Freeman endorsement chorus on Twitter. Numerous commits who chimed in included “#FreemanEra” in their Tweets and included photographs of them with the coach during recruiting visits. Consensus four-star defensive end Tyson Ford, the No. 104 player in the class of 2022 per, was Freeman’s first recruiting victory with the Irish, beating out Oklahoma for the St. Louis prospect’s pledge. Ford has not shown any wavering this week, instead focusing his thoughts on the seemingly-universal Freeman support.

The class of 2022, for which the early signing day period opens in exactly two weeks, currently contains seven consensus four-star recruits including Ford, five of whom are in the top 250. That haul would nearly match the previous three recruiting cycles combined, in which Notre Dame signed a total of eight players slotted within their respective top-250 rankings. As it pertains to his position group, Freeman boasts the nation’s top 2022 linebacker class.

His 2023 recruiting profile is similarly impressive, with three commits in the top 40 rankings.

Freeman has long been praised for his recruiting prowess, which was one of the reasons he was so highly sought after last winter — and not just by Notre Dame. When Freeman arrived from Cincinnati in January 2021, he elected to join the staff at Notre Dame instead of taking the same job at LSU. Now, less than a year later, Freeman could reportedly be faced with another choice between the two schools; The Athletic’s Pete Sampson reported on Tuesday that Kelly contacted Freeman “on Monday in an effort to bring him to Baton Rouge. Kelly would intend to make Freeman the highest paid defensive coordinator in college football.”

Alongside former colleague and Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Freeman is widely viewed as one of the most likely candidates to be considered for the top job at Notre Dame, and he appears to be the most popular choice among players.

But whether or not Freeman is named the next head coach at Notre Dame, the players’ Twitter comments do serve as a reminder of the current era of college football — one driven by social media that gives players a public platform to share their opinions on the program’s future.

And Notre Dame’s players just took full advantage of that capability.

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.

tweet to @carolinepineda_