SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For Marcus Freeman, it’s all about keeping things simple and letting talent flow.
Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach isn’t looking to reinvent the playbook left behind by predecessor Clark Lea, hired in December as head coach at Vanderbilt, his alma mater.
“I’m not coming in here, dropping a book and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ ” said Freeman, who was hired after four seasons in the same role at Cincinnati. “Let’s evaluate our guys. Let’s evaluate the best players on our defense and put them in position to be successful. That’s how I’ve always been.”
When spring practice opens in March, there will be some changes in personnel, most notably the loss of projected NFL first-round draft pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, Freeman’s former high school teammate and former defensive staffer at Cincinnati, must bring along a new group at that position, as well.
The “Buck” linebacker position on the weak side of the defense now will be called “Will,” and the Irish will have a “Viper” position, as well as a rover. Beyond that, though, Freeman is taking it upon himself to adapt to what he’s inheriting rather than bringing the Bearcat Way to South Bend.
“You’ve got to be a crazy person to come in here and say, ‘We’re going to change what you’ve done,’ ” Freeman said. “Our alignments might change, the technique might change. But the Notre Dame defense has been good for many, many years. It’s going to be both. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
In helping Luke Fickell build a top-10 juggernaut in the American Athletic Conference, Freeman took Cincinnati’s scoring defense from 93rd nationally in his first year (2017) to eighth in two of the last three years.
That allowed Freeman, who played linebacker at Ohio State for Jim Tressel and reached two consecutive BCS national championship games (2007-08), to become a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2020.
At 35, Freeman is a rising star in the coaching world. Just don’t expect him to buy into the hype about his bright future.
“Ultimately, all I care about is that we put our guys in a position to be successful and play fast,” Freeman said. “I’m not going to try to trick people. I want to give our guys the ability to get lined up, play relentless, play with the effort we demand and we want to see. My job is don’t confuse them.”
At Cincinnati, Freeman showed a willingness to adapt his scheme. Rolling with the punches and dealing with injuries was part of the impetus for that, but so is the idea that players will dictate much of the outcome with timeless football qualities.
“I have certain philosophies on things, but I’m always changing,” Freeman said. “[Partly] to be able to defend against the crazy offenses we see. Everybody wants to know, ‘Are you a three-down [linemen] team? Are you a four-down team? A nickel team?’ Let’s get the best 11.
“That’s my job. That’s our job as a defensive staff. Figure out the best 11 and then the best 22. And say, ‘OK, what are we trying to take away? What are we trying to stop the offense from doing?’ ”
Look for rising junior safety Kyle Hamilton to assume an even bigger role on the defense, and don’t be surprised if freshmen cornerbacks Philip Riley and JoJo Johnson get early opportunities to contribute.
In the end, Freeman said, the standard is the standard. Going from the cerebral reserve of Lea to the fiery creativity of his successor won’t change that one bit.
“It’s how hard you play, it’s the fundamentals,” Freeman said. “We’re going to challenge each other. We’re going to challenge ourselves. We’re going to challenge our opponents. We’ll be aggressive in what we do.”