When Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick hired Marcus Freeman, a move that became official in early December, he did so with the intention of continuity in mind. With Freeman as the new head coach of the Fighting Irish, there was an expectation that much of the former staff would remain mostly intact. However, just a few months later, Freeman has added seven new coaches, as well as several new members of a revamped support staff that has already seen an uptick in recruiting success.
Running Backs Coach Deland McCullough
In a move that surprised some, former running backs coach Lance Taylor took the offensive coordinator position at Louisville, which left Notre Dame with another vacancy on the offensive staff. Taylor’s hire shows how respected the Notre Dame offense, and more specifically the ground attack, has been over the last few seasons.
While searching for a replacement for the short-tenured Taylor, several names emerged as candidates for the job, but Freeman and Rees appeared to have one favorite throughout the process: Deland McCullough. McCullough, a former collegiate and NFL running back, has several ties to the Midwest that should enhance Notre Dame’s recruiting presence on its home turf – he attended college at Miami University, played for the Cincinnati Bengals, and had multiple stints as a coach at the University of Indiana. While the Hoosiers finished second to last in the Big Ten in rushing yards in McCullough’s return to Indiana last year, McCullough did coach Stephen Carr to a career year with 600 yards and six touchdowns. McCullough also coached at USC for the 2017 season before making the jump to the NFL.
Prior to his second stint at Indiana, McCullough spent three seasons as the running backs coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. While on the staff, the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV and appeared in three AFC Championship games.
McCullough’s combination of collegiate and NFL experience will surely impress recruits looking to play professional football. While several running backs under his tutelage have found great success rushing the ball at both levels of football, McCullough is also known for instilling a sense of toughness into his groups. In his three seasons in Kansas City, Chiefs running backs were only responsible for allowing four sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Because Kyren Williams declared for the NFL Draft, McCullough will inherit a running backs room that returns plenty of talent, but not much production. Junior Chris Tyree and sophomore Logan Diggs were contributors this past season, and sophomore Audric Estime and early enrollee Jadarian Price round out the position group. McCullough is also known as an elite recruiter, so Fighting Irish fans can expect the talent in the room to continuously improve.
Tight Ends Coach Gerad Parker
As with Taylor, few around the Gug expected to see a new face filling the tight ends coach position come opening day in Columbus, but former coach John McNulty received a similar promotion as the offensive coordinator of Boston College. While moving on was difficult for McNulty, he left behind a position that was widely sought after from rising stars in the industry. With returning All-American Michael Mayer and a plethora of other young options, new tight ends coach Gerad Parker will step into a position group ready to thrive in the near future. At Notre Dame, the tight end position sells itself to recruits and Parker is known as an exceptional recruiter in his own right.
When assembling his first staff, Freeman was looking for young, bright coaches who were willing to grind on the recruiting trail and build relationships with his current players; Parker fits both of those requirements well. Parker and Freeman have coached together at previous stops in their careers, and Freeman received glowing reviews of the former West Virginia co-offensive coordinator.
“The energy he brings each and every day is contagious. It is part of what makes him a great leader,” Freeman said. “He is also a very detailed teacher and that combination of skills is going to make us a better program.”
Prior to coming to South Bend to reunite with Marcus Freeman, Parker developed several all-conference performers at Power Five universities – Winston Wright Jr. and Bryce Ford-Wheaton at West Virginia, KJ Hamler at Penn State, T.J. Rahming at Duke, and DeAngelo Yancey at Purdue.
A Kentucky native, Parker will add connections to the southeast on the recruiting front, as well as an experienced offensive mind who will continue to help build the Notre Dame offense into one of the best in the country.
Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Al Golden
Because Freeman was promoted to head coach, there was one remaining vacancy on the defensive staff after the hiring of Al Washington as defensive line coach: defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, the position vacated by Freeman. Prior to the Fiesta Bowl, two names were widely considered the favorites for the job: Notre Dame’s defensive line coach Mike Elston and Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden. After the second-half collapse in the Fiesta Bowl when Elston was calling defensive plays, he departed for his alma mater, Michigan, which left one name ahead of the pack. Due to the Bengals’ Super Bowl run, Golden had little time to interview and go through the hiring process at Notre Dame.
In mid-February, the University made the hiring of Golden official, completing Freeman’s first staff at Notre Dame. Despite holding an NFL job and receiving interest from other universities and NFL teams, Golden said he felt compelled to return to the collegiate ranks because of the man calling the shots.
After watching Freeman’s introductory press conference, Golden recalled telling his wife that Notre Dame “would be a place that would get me back (into college coaching).” He continued, “I was listening to Marcus and I told my wife, Kelly, ‘I don’t really have to change to be a partner with that guy right there.’”
A partner was what Freeman was looking for, someone with head coaching experience who could help him navigate the complexities of being a head coach at Notre Dame. Prior to his multi-team stint in the NFL, Golden was a collegiate head coach for 10 years at both Temple and Miami. With 29 seasons of coaching experience across all levels of the sport, Golden provides the experience necessary to help guide Freeman through the transition to head coach at a program like Notre Dame.
In his collegiate coaching career, Golden received multiple awards for excellence in coaching and led Temple to one of the greatest rebuilds in modern college football. After 26 straight losing seasons, Golden led the program to two straight winning seasons and their first bowl game since 1979 in 2009. At Miami, Golden continued this success by leading the Hurricanes to five straight bowl games.
Swarbrick is familiar with Golden, one of the finalists for the head coaching job before Notre Dame ultimately chose to hire Brian Kelly. Golden will inherit a defense that has had great success over the past five seasons. The Irish defense returns several premier starters and added All-American safety Brandon Joseph. Expectations will be high for Golden in his return to college football, but he has shown that he’s capable of stepping up to the challenge.
Marcus Freeman (B+): One of the hottest names in college football, it’s impossible not to love Freeman as a recruiter and a defensive coordinator. He has a magnetic personality that recruits flock to, he’s proven that he can be an elite X’s and O’s coach and he has shown a commitment to outworking his competitors. He’s also never been a head coach, which showed in Notre Dame’s bowl loss to Oklahoma State, and the demands of coaching at Notre Dame will always be different.
There may not have been a better option for Notre Dame going forward, but that doesn’t mean the future won’t be without its bumps.
Al Golden, Defensive Coordinator (A): Notre Dame got their man. They waited longer than they wanted, but Freeman got his first choice. For a staff as young as this one, adding a defensive coordinator with head coaching experience was a must. Golden brings that experience from a school with a fan base almost as expectant in Miami, as well as NFL coaching experience. Golden was also willing to adapt his style and terminology so that the defense wouldn’t have to adjust again, making him the perfect complement to Marcus Freeman.
Al Washington, Defensive Line Coach (A-): While some may point to Ohio State moving on from Washington as a red flag that Notre Dame is settling, they forget that Ohio State brought in a new defensive coordinator who coaches linebackers himself. Washington is an elite recruiter who works harder than most and instantly builds connections with recruits. He can also point to several former players having successful collegiate and professional careers. I fully expect Washington to be a star in South Bend.
Brian Mason, Special Teams Coordinator (B+): Another coach with ties to Freeman, Mason has a strong reputation within the special teams community. If you didn’t like Brian Polian’s conservative style of play, you’ll immediately take to Mason as he attempts to bring chaos to games through blocking kicks and punts. Mason also has experience as a recruiting coordinator, and it appears that recruits immediately take to his personality. The only knock on Mason’s coaching was Cincinnati’s kicking struggles this past season.
Gerad Parker, Tight Ends Coach (B): With a position group as historically dominant at Notre Dame as the tight end position, many saw this as a let down hire. Many of the top tight ends coaches in the country were reportedly interested in the job, but Freeman went with the former West Virginia co-OC. However, this can be seen as a potentially better hire than most realize. Parker is known as an amazing recruiter and was a Power Five offensive coordinator before taking this position.
Chansi Stuckey, Wide Receivers Coach (B): Chansi Stuckey has a short resume with just one year of coaching at the Power Five level under his belt. In that one year, however, Baylor wide receivers showed marked improvement. Stuckey is another young up-and-comer with the drive to succeed at Notre Dame. While his resume might not impress five-star talent immediately, his ability to develop players, along with his NFL playing experience and infectious personality, will be a huge boost to a position group that has long fallen under expectations.
Delland McCullough, Running Backs Coach (B+): From a recruiting standpoint, Deland McCullough has everything you’d look for in a position coach. He has collegiate and professional playing and coaching experience, has shown that he can develop players into their best forms, and is willing to grind on the recruiting trail. The only downside with McCullough is his potentially short tenure — he has stated he would like to become a collegiate head coach and may seek promotion elsewhere.
Harry Hiestand, Offensive Line Coach (A-): Harry Hiestand is the best offensive line coach in the country, take my word for it. He helped build Notre Dame into “O-Line U” and the offensive line will return to a Joe Moore Award-winning unit soon under his tutelage. While he isn’t known for his recruiting efforts, the Notre Dame brand and his ability to develop NFL offensive linemen will sell itself. Hiestand also adds experience to a younger offensive staff.