The Freeman Era

Author: Emma Duffy

Notre Dame football is entering a new era. Marcus Freeman was named the Fighting Irish head coach after the sudden and controversial departure of longtime head coach Brian Kelly, who heads to LSU next year. Freeman inherits a program that is back in the national spotlight after just missing the College Football Playoff at No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. The football program is destined to see major changes, as Freeman is expected to bring a new energy to the surging Irish program. 

Freeman is experienced in the world of college football; his name has been respected since he was a high school star at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. As a senior, Freeman was named to the Parade All-American team and was rated as a top three prospect in the state of Ohio. These successes led to Freeman signing with  Ohio State, where he played linebacker from 2004-2008. Freeman started 37 games in an Ohio State jersey and was a second-team All-Big Ten selection during his senior year. 

His career also stretched to the NFL when he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2009. 

“That helped me grow. It helped me get to this point where, hey, you can handle being outside your comfort zone,” Freeman said. 

Freeman’s experience in college and the NFL appeals to recruits. Recruits know they can find belonging as they leave their childhood homes for South Bend, and parents have trust and confidence in Freeman to do what is right for their sons. In the NFL, Freeman also played for the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Texans before his career was cut short by a heart condition. 

After his career in the NFL ended, Freeman began his coaching journey with a return to Ohio State where he became a graduate assistant. Following this, Freeman became the Kent State linebackers coach for two years. He then moved on to take the same role at Purdue, where he was eventually promoted to co-defensive coordinator. These experiences propelled him to the job of defensive coordinator at Cincinnati where he earned his reputation transforming a mediocre defense into one of the best in the country. 

Freeman left Cincinnati and spent last season as the Irish defensive coordinator where he brought an intensity to the Notre Dame defense. Upon Kelly’s departure, he tried to recruit Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees to Baton Rouge with him. Rees and Freeman, however, decided to stay in South Bend. Long time special teams coach and friend of Kelly, Brian Polian, decided to take Kelly’s offer to join him at LSU in the same position. Wide receivers coach Del Alexander and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn were not retained on Freeman’s new staff. In addition, two other coaches have moved on to positions at other universities. Lance Taylor received a promotion to offensive coordinator at Louisville, while Mike Elston returned to his alma mater, Michigan, as the defensive line coach. 

Luckily, all of the other Notre Dame coaches are maintaining their roles. Tommy Rees has retained his position as offensive coordinator and tight ends coach John McNulty also chose to remain in South Bend. Having coached with Freeman at Cincinnati, it is not that much of a shock that cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens will be staying as well. Starting as a defensive analyst and graduate assistant at Notre Dame, Chris O’Leary will not be abandoning his spot as safeties coach at Notre Dame either. Matt Balis, recognized as one of the preeminent strength and conditioning coaches in the country, also announced that he would remain at Notre Dame. 

While numerous others will be joining the coaching staff in the coming months, the first official addition will be a longtime friend of Freeman’s, James Laurinaitis, a standout player at Ohio State University. He garnered three All-American selections as a linebacker in his time in Columbus. After his time in college, he played for the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints during his eight-year NFL career. 

Laurinaitis has been searching for an opportunity since. “I’ve been poking around with the idea of coaching for a couple years now, and had tried a couple times here locally, and for whatever reason, the situation just didn’t come about,” he said. An offer from one of his best friends to coach at Notre Dame is an ideal situation. It will be interesting to see these two friends, both Ohio State alumni, work together with their first game being against their alma mater. 

A position has been opened by Freeman’s promotion, leaving it unclear who will be the next defensive coordinator. At the moment, it does not seem as though Freeman has any front runners for the position. 

“No, I [do] not”, said Freeman, “we will not name a defensive coordinator for next year until after the bowl game.” It may be some time before this position will be filled. With Notre Dame’s recent success at defensive coordinator (Mike Elko, Clark Lea and Marcus Freeman are all head coaches at Power five schools), whoever the choice is has big shoes to fill. 

While it is undeniable that Freeman will make changes that he feels are just, he maintains respect for the team dynamic and looks to continue to push the team forward. 

“I want to keep this thing as steady as I can,’’ Freeman said, “now the challenge is going to be to enhance what we do now it’s going to be to take this team to the next level."