With Clark Lea’s much deserved promotion to Vanderbilt head coach complete, Brian Kelly has tapped Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to lead the Notre Dame defense. Freeman was at the helm of an elite Bearcats defense over the last three seasons and was coveted by many top programs before landing in South Bend. Some have questioned whether Freeman’s success can translate against Power Five competition, and we have the stats to show that it can. The point of this article is not to prove that Freeman is a better defensive coordinator than Clark Lea, but simply to use the statistics from Lea’s excellent run as defensive coordinator as a baseline to show what an elite coach Freeman has been. These charts plot Lea’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish defenses, Freeman’s Cincinnati defenses, and FBS average defensive stats to compare their EPA/allowed (for a primer on EPA please follow this link to our quick explainer) at different downs and distances. This is a lot of words, but essentially we’re just comparing the two coordinators at how well their run and pass defenses hold up in different situations.
OPPONENT-ADJUSTED EPA Methodology
To compare the two more directly, we have added an adjusted EPA stat that adjusts the raw numbers for opponent-strength on the game/weekly level. Skip ahead if you don’t want to read through the nerd methodology. I first looked into the predictability of EPA and when prior season stats become less relevant than current season stats (using data from 2014-20). I found that around week 8 of each season that season’s data becomes more predictive than the prior year’s. Knowing that, I used an 8 week-moving average to establish an opponent’s strength at the time of each game as well as the league average. The calculation for the adjustment is then (EPA in a particular game) + (League Average EPA - Opponent Average EPA).
It’s easy to see why so many top programs lined up to court Freeman this offseason. Freeman’s defenses have held opponents to similar adjusted EPA figures as Lea, and Freeman’s defenses have even been a bit stronger since 2018 in his second year at Cincinnati. The Bearcats immediately improved after he took over, and it’s possible Freeman could have a similar short-term impact at Notre Dame (although there was far more room for improvement at Cincinnati in 2017 then there will be in South Bend next season).
Freeman’s secondary was completely elite against the pass last season, giving up -0.35 EPA/pass, and -0.31 Adj. EPA/Pass, both of which ranked 2nd. This is what will make Freeman such an excellent short term fit. The secondary is arguably Notre Dame’s weakest position group this year, with the departure of Nick McCloud, Shaun Crawford, and Houston Griffith leaving gaping holes on the depth chart. Freeman was able to get the most out of his secondary players last season with even less talent, and if anyone could get this secondary into shape it’s likely him.
Clark Lea’s secondary performed extremely well in all areas last season, except containing opponent deep passing. Notre Dame gave up almost 1 EPA/Pass when defending throws over 20 yards downfield. Seeing Marcus Freeman’s EPA by distance tank so hard as the distances get longer implies he may have had similar issues, but the sample sizes are so small (14 plays with 15 yards to go) at each individual distance it’s possible one play or a few plays are biasing the data. This may be a deep passing issue but also could be a product of playing a conservative contain defense in non-competitive games. With the sample size it’s too hard to draw any confident conclusions about it, but it’s something to watch early next season.
Both have been consistently stout against the run, with Freeman’s Bearcats never giving up positive EPA or Adjusted EPA per run. Irish fans will be unsurprised by how stout Clark Lea’s defenses were in short yardage situations, outperforming the FBS average at all yardages with under 7 yards to go. Even despite how good Lea was, Freeman was even better at all distances between 2 and 9 yards. Interestingly, Lea’s defenses were elite against the run with over 10 yards to go for a first down, likely meaning Notre Dame was not vulnerable to huge run plays in surprise run situations. The bottom line here is unlike passing where Freeman had the obvious edge, both Lea and Freeman were similar in stopping the run.
This was a statement hire for the Irish, and winning a coveted coordinator over the likes of LSU shows how Brian Kelly has taken this program to new heights in this era. Whether or not Freeman can replicate last season’s pass defense numbers at Cincinnati remains to be seen, but it’s likely that however the Notre Dame secondary performs he will be getting as much as he can out of his players.