It’s been a week and a half since I recapped the performance of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their regular season finale against the Stanford Cardinal, but it feels years worth of change have taken place. Brian Kelly is no more, having transmogrified into a purple-clad Foghorn Leghorn and migrated to the land of voodoo, Mardi Gras, and jambalaya that will make him flush worse than a Tommy Rees interception off the head of TJ Jones. His successor Marcus Freeman has been embraced with a rapidity and enthusiasm I genuinely have never seen from the Notre Dame fanbase all my life. One more time, for good measure:
For context: Brian Kelly is the only Notre Dame coach of whom I have a working memory who lasted longer than five years, and even he never failed to attract a vocal set of committed detractors. So when I say I have seen never this degree of unanimity and excitement directed from the Irish fanbase toward a coach, I mean it. There’s a great energy around the Irish program, with many believing this is just the sort of refresh the program needs.
That said, eventually every honeymoon must end and the work of the relationship must begin. Games will be played, and the dreams we have of national championships and finally reaching that top tier of college football will be realized - or not. It’s reasonable for Irish fans to hope for that, but it’s hard to predict how or when it will play out in the years to come when we haven’t seen Freeman coach a game as the head man, let alone build a program. That said, there are some things we can predict about the nascent Freeman era based on Marcus’ track record at Notre Dame and prior roles and, spoiler alert - they’re all good ones.
This is the most obvious one, and no doubt you’ve heard many times that Marcus Freeman is one hell of a recruiter, so I won’t dwell on it for too long. What I do want to zoom in on is how Freeman will succeed at leveling up Notre Dame’s recruiting, a change in approach which he has gone into in some detail. Here is Freeman talking with Chris Zorich back in July:
“There’s two different ways you can look at it,” Freeman told Zorich. “You can look and say let’s find all the kids that are ‘Notre Dame guys.’ They check off every box; maybe private school kids, two-parent homes — a kid that you know that if you offer this kid, he’s coming to Notre Dame. That’s, to me, the Notre Dame kid.”
“And you know what? Let’s find the best players in the country. Some of those players might be ‘Notre Dame kids.’ They might be. But I don’t want to just take this group of guys and say these are the only ones we’re evaluating. I want to look at all of them and then kind of filter out through the best players and say, ‘Hey, can this guy make it at Notre Dame?’”
Freeman said Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly was recently enamored by a particular recruit. He couldn’t stop talking about him. Freeman, mere months into his stint working under Kelly, was blunt with his new boss.
“Coach Kelly said, ‘Oh my gosh. I love this kid. He’s exactly what we need here,’” Freeman said. “I said, ‘Coach, you guys wouldn’t even have talked to this guy a couple years ago. You wouldn’t have even gotten him on the phone.’”
Freeman said the recruit comes from an inner-city, single-parent home. Quite simply, Freeman said the player is “not a Notre Dame guy on paper.” But that clearly doesn’t matter to the man calling many of the shots on the blue and gold recruiting trail.
“He’s intelligent,” Freeman said. “And he works at it. You don’t have to be a 32 ACT, but you’ve got to be willing to go to study hall every day. You’ve got to be willing to work at it and not cut corners. If you have that makeup, you can make it here.”
As head coach, Freeman has already stated his commitment to being “the lead recruiter on every kid that we recruit,” and backed it up by embarking on a visit with five-star defensive lineman Anthony Lucas almost immediately after his introduction on Monday.
A trendy take now among Notre Dame fans is to trash the departed Kelly for his supposed lack of commitment to recruiting. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but it is true that Kelly saw himself as more of a finisher in the recruiting process, coming in to close the deal while his assistants did the heavy lifting. Freeman is the polar opposite, and Irish fans can count on him bringing a new level of engagement from the head coaching position. Notre Dame has a strong pitch it can make to recruits, and Freeman is committed to making that pitch to new players in new ways. It has already yielded results in the 2022 and 2023 classes, and Irish fans should expect more and better to come.
The Irish Will Not Play Scared
Beyond a love for the man himself, what I saw reflected in the outpouring of support form players and recruits in favor of Freeman was belief. This was a man that the present and future Irish saw as capable of taking them to a new level and leading them to wins that have eluded them so far.
Why is this important? For all he did to raise the level of play in the Irish program, Brian Kelly’s teams were known to come in flat at times in difficult moments. People who followed these teams knew they were good enough to beat, or at least compete with, the 2017 Miami Hurricanes and Stanford Cardinal, the 2019 Michigan Wolverines, or even the 2021 Cincinnati Bearcats on any given Saturday. These were not games where the Irish were physically overmatched, but rather simply failed to show up. It was never clear that Kelly was able to generate the kind of belief that would have enabled the Irish to win in those games. That’s a failure of coaching, and it’s one I don’t think you’ll see from Freeman. The Irish are not going to show up in Glendale in January - or, dare I say, Columbus in September - and fail to get off the bus. You’re going to see Irish teams that bring consistent intensity and belief into every game, and give every team the play their best shot.
This Will Be Fun
Against all odds, Notre Dame - long synonymous with blue-blooded intransigence and adherence to tradition - has somehow become the young, fun program in college football. The two highest-ranking coaches in the program are 35 and 29 years old, recruits who - in Freeman’s own words - the Irish wouldn’t have even been talking to are showing interest, and the players appear to be as united and excited about the game as ever (again, see the video above).
What’s more, if we take Freeman’s defensive coaching and extrapolate it to the other parts of the game, we can expect Irish teams defined by a philosophy of playing freely and aggressively, hitting hard and flying all over the field and following their instincts. It’s the carpe diem style of football, and we’ve already seen how effective it can be in this year’s defense.
We don’t yet know what that will look like on offense, but we can make a few educated guesses. Irish fans in the Kelly era were frustrated at times to see offensive schemes that seemed reluctant to take chances and utilize playmakers to their full potential. I don’t think you’ll see that from a largely unencumbered Tommy Rees operating within the parameters of Freeman’s philosophy. Expect more aggressive scheming and playcalling from the Irish, with less ball control and more big plays.
What do you think we will see from Coach Freeman when the rubber hits the road? Let us know in the comments. Go Irish!