Following a successful 2020 campaign that saw the Notre Dame Fighting Irish finish #5 in the country with a 10-2 record, there has been an unusual amount of upheaval in South Bend. Clark Lea left to take the head coaching position at Vanderbilt, Terry Joseph made a lateral move to Texas as the safeties coach and passing game coordinator, and 13 players entered the transfer portal (Houston Griffith has since returned to Notre Dame). With all of the turnover, it is fair to be concerned about the Irish heading into the 2021 season. However, there have been several key developments over the first 6 weeks of the offseason that should comfort Irish fans heading into next season.
The Obvious: Landing Marcus Freeman
Not only is it remarkable that Brian Kelly was able to land the services of the top defensive coordinator on the market, it also bears repeating who he was going up against. Notre Dame went toe to toe with LSU to win the services of Freeman. Reports indicated that LSU formally offered Freeman a yearly salary of $2.5 million. That type of offer is similar to what Texas A&M offered Mike Elko back in 2017, resulting in him leaving for College Station after 1 season. Instead of bowing out, Notre Dame offered above what Clark Lea was making last season ($1.6 million) to increase the competitiveness of their offer. The second offer from Notre Dame was enough to entice Freeman to spurn the Tigers and come to South Bend. His decision should begin to shift the narrative that Notre Dame is unwilling to allocate resources to their football program in a similar fashion to those in the South.
Freeman’s hire should pay dividends on the field and keep Notre Dame’s defense among the nation’s elite on a year in and year out basis for as long as he is in town. Of equal importance is Freeman’s renowned ability on the recruiting trail. Freeman has already made an instant impact with his dogged recruitment of 2022 defensive end Tyson Ford. Ford is the highest-rated defensive end the Irish have hauled in since Isaac Rochell in the 2012 recruiting class. Freeman’s age, playing career, and personality have the potential to get Notre Dame in the door with more of the elite defensive talent in the nation. Continuing to narrow the gap between Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State begins on the recruiting trail, and Freeman could play a large role in achieving Top-5 recruiting classes moving forward.
Of note, Freeman will also be reunited with former cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens. Freeman and Mickens have a close relationship as evidenced by Freeman serving as the main reference for Mickens last season when he applied for the cornerbacks coach at Notre Dame. While there is little doubt Mickens and Lea worked well together, there will be an added level of familiarity and comfort between Freeman and Mickens, which is never a bad thing.
An Added Bonus: Retaining Our Most Talented Wide Receivers
With the number of players from the 2020 roster placing their name in the transfer portal, retaining Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Jordan Johnson, and Xavier Watts was no small feat. In my opinion, the major takeaway is that none of these players believe they aren’t being developed, used properly, etc. Austin and Lenzy could have sought fresh starts, while Johnson and Watts could have become upset by their lack of playing time as freshmen. Thankfully, all four players stuck around and have the potential to provide the offense with their most dangerous group of pass-catchers in years.
Furthermore, the players in the wide receiver room seem to have confidence in Del Alexander. If they didn’t, a mass exodus would have likely taken place after the season. While the question remains why Notre Dame struggles to get their young talent on the field sooner, clearly the players believe in Alexander.
The Underrated: Promoting Chris O’ Leary to Safeties Coach
The sign of a healthy program is having coaches on staff capable of receiving promotions once the person above them moves onto another program or position. Chris O’ Leary has been on staff with the Irish since 2018, first serving as a defensive analyst before serving a graduate assistant on defense last season. Kelly stated how much of an impact O’ Leary had over the past couple of years while coaching the Rover position, including his work with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
While we don’t know how much of an impact O’ Leary will have on the position group in 2021, Kelly and the other defensive coaches must have seen something to indicate to them that O’ Leary was a better option than bringing in a more established coach. Kelly has been accused of tending to hire people within his coaching tree or people with whom he has a former connection. After all of the angst about hiring Jeff Quinn as offensive line coach and promoting Tommy Rees to offensive coordinator, both moves appear to be paying off. Albeit in a less controversial hire, fans should welcome the O’Leary promotion and continue to trust that Kelly knows the people on his staff better than we do.
There is a long way to go until the 2021 season. However, the first 6 weeks of the offseason have demonstrated that Notre Dame is not resting on its laurels. Instead, Brian Kelly and company are continuing to do all they can to get back to the College Football Playoff and claim the school’s first national title since 1988.