Column: The Freeman Era begins

Author: Daniel Paglia

A new era has dawned on Notre Dame football. With it comes hope and new expectations; expectations to finally win the “big game,” to reel in five-star talent, and to bring a national championship back to South Bend. While Brian Kelly completely reshaped the national perception of Notre Dame football, he was never able to win the “big game” and appease fans and alumni alike. There was great optimism that newly hired head coach Marcus Freeman would immediately expel that narrative in his first game at the helm. 

However, new eras take time to build as was evident when the Fighting Irish gave up 30 unanswered points and blew a 21-point lead to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Perhaps expectations for Freeman’s first game were too high, especially considering the experience and talent on the opposition’s sideline. But the first half showed promise of what’s to come at Notre Dame, and that future is incredibly bright. 

In his first year at Notre Dame, Freeman proved to be an elite recruiter by landing a commitment from five-star linebacker Jaylen Sneed, as well as three other four-star linebackers and four additional four-star players on the defense, while demonstrating his brilliance as a defensive coordinator as well. There are still some question marks surrounding the program, but there is also reason to believe that Notre Dame is closer to winning a national championship than ever before, after five straight double-digit-win seasons and two College Football Playoff trips in four years. 

The second half of the Fiesta Bowl showed the glaring holes in the Notre Dame roster that will need to be addressed going forward: a lack of depth at wide receiver, a likewise depleted secondary that was burned time and time again, an offensive line that could not get push against a talented Cowboy defensive line and a lack of athleticism at linebacker that was compounded by missed tackling. 

Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have already begun addressing several of these challenges. On the offensive side, offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and wide receivers coach Del Alexander were not retained on the new staff. In their place will be former Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and former Baylor wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey according to multiple reports, although neither hire has been officially announced by the university. 

With a lack of continuity on the coaching staff, there will be a surprising amount of continuity among the roster personnel itself. Along the offensive line, Cain Madden represents the only departure as talented true freshmen tackles Blake Fisher and Joe Alt return to a formidable front. Preseason All-American center Jarrett Patterson also returns, as well as Zeke Correll, Andrew Kristofic and Rocco Spindler who all saw action on the interior this year as well. In addition to the talent on the roster, Notre Dame also signed five high school All-American offensive linemen that will offer additional depth. 

While the offensive line is loaded with depth, who they will be blocking for and other positions along the offense remain in question. It is presumed that sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner will be given the reins to the offense next season, but he will have to beat out Drew Pyne who showed flashes this past season in order to win the starting job. Regardless of who’s starting come September, Rees will likely bring in an additional quarterback to provide depth. Joining Buchner and Pyne in the backfield will be sophomore running backs Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, as well as junior Chris Tyree. Replacing the production of Kyren Williams will likely take a committee effort, and don’t be surprised if freshman Jadarian Price (top 200 RB according to 247Sports) cracks the rotation as well. 

The real question marks on the offense next season will be who is catching the ball besides All-American tight end Michael Mayer. The Fighting Irish received good news when Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Avery Davis announced their returns to South Bend, but the wide receiver position has little depth beyond sophomores Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas. Look for Styles to have a breakout season, as well as additional depth provided via the transfer portal and incoming freshman Tobias Merriweather (top 100 WR according to 247Sports). 

On the other side of the ball, the defense will be led by its third different coordinator in the last three years. Notre Dame has grown a reputation for having stout defenses and physical fronts, but next year’s team will be without several of its leaders. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Drew White and Kurt Hinish are graduating and moving onto the NFL, while star safety Kyle Hamilton will forgo his senior season and head to the NFL Draft. 

While the defense will be led by a new coordinator, several pieces of the defensive staff have remained at Notre Dame including safeties coach Chris O’Leary and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. Freeman will be tasked with finding a new defensive line coach after the surprising departure of long-time coach Mike Elston for his alma mater, Michigan. Also returning are defensive linemen Isaiah Foskey, and twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola, plus Houston Griffith in the secondary, adding experience to a defense that is loaded with potential. Notre Dame also recently secured a commitment from Northwestern transfer and All-American safety Brandon Joseph, who will help fill the void left by Hamilton’s departure. 

If Notre Dame is going to get over the hump and compete for a national championship next season, it won’t come easy. The Irish open the season in Columbus against Ohio State before taking on a revamped USC program, a surging UNC team and the well-coached Clemson Tigers. 

A new era is here for Notre Dame, and there will certainly be growing pains (like the Fiesta Bowl), but the future is brighter than ever in South Bend, so buckle up and enjoy the Freeman era.