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Marcus Freeman closes the deals Brian Kelly started

The new coach’s coast-to-coast travel cements the Irish’s elite recruiting class.

Marcus Freeman
Newly hired Notre Dame Fighting Irish football coach Marcus Freeman is introduced during the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Purcell Pavilion on December 11, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman had just completed his public coronation as Notre Dame’s football coach when Tommy Rees greeted him with a serious look and a firm request.

“We’ve got to go see Tobias,” Rees told his new boss on the afternoon of Dec. 6.

About nine hours later, Freeman and Rees, his offensive coordinator, headlined a weary contingent that walked into the living room of Tobias Merriweather, a four-star wide receiver from Camas, Washington, a suburb of Portland, Oregon.

That, of course, was the same young man whose family had welcomed a Brian Kelly-led Irish recruiting group exactly one week earlier. As detailed in The Columbian newspaper, that would be the final in-home visit of Kelly’s 12-year reign as Notre Dame coach.

The first rumors of his LSU future actually broke while Kelly was reportedly downing three helpings of Mrs. Merriweather’s brisket, according to Tobias’ father, Dom. Later that night, Kelly texted his Notre Dame players that he was gone.

It was not a good look.

So when Freeman, Rees, wide receiver coach Del Alexander and defensive director of recruiting Chad Bowden arrived at the Merriweathers around 9:30 p.m. Pacific time, much was on the line. Subsequent decommitments by fellow receivers C.J. Williams (projected for USC) and Amorion Walker (Michigan early signee) only heightened the stakes for that sit-down in the Pacific Northwest.

As he did repeatedly over the final nine days that led up to Dec. 15 and the start of the early signing period, Rees marveled at how natural and relaxed Freeman appeared in his new role.

“[Freeman] has a presence about him when he walks into a home that people gravitate to,” Rees, the former Lake Forest High and Notre Dame quarterback, said at his first news conference since the coaching change. “Being on the road with him for pretty much an entire week, you see the relatability with the families and the kids and the way he’s able to speak to them. It’s something that’s very impactful.”

By Freeman’s estimate, he visited 14 states and piled up 8,000 air miles in the wake of his rapid promotion. Under NCAA recruiting rules, players are granted an additional campus visit in the wake of a coaching change, but Freeman wasn’t about to wait around and watch a top-five class crumble.

Once the fax machine started whirring Wednesday at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, the wisdom of that decision became clear. Even with Notre Dame football being “turned upside down for about three days,” as Rees noted, its 21-member group of early signees still ranked seventh nationally, according to 247 Sports.

A dozen of those players will enroll in January, giving them a realistic chance to compete for playing time next fall. Depending on the amount of attrition in Notre Dame’s receiver room, Merriweather, a 6-4 specimen with track speed, could emulate the sudden impact of 2021 freshmen Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie.

“To get him as part of this class is huge,” Freeman said of Merriweather. “That was a very important get for us.”

Holding together one of the nation’s strongest linebacker groups, led by Jaylen Sneed of Hilton Head, South Carolina — the only top-100 recruit among Notre Dame’s early haul — wasn’t the issue for Freeman. He already had solid relationships with prospects on the defensive side of the ball.

Instead, it was vital that Freeman and Rees make the rounds with offensive recruits to ease their concerns regarding Life After Kelly. Their first post-presser stop was at the Wisconsin home of offensive lineman Billy Schrauth.

They also locked down tight end Eli Raridon (Des Moines, Iowa), New Jersey quarterback Steve Angeli, Texas running back Jadarian Price and every other nonbinding commitment beyond the two receivers who got away. One by one, they put out the fires, the first-time head coach and the youthful offensive play-caller he was so set on retaining.

Disaster was averted, just as Notre Dame power brokers hoped it would be when they acted quickly to keep Kelly from taking both of his rising-star coordinators with him to his strange new home on the Bayou.