Brian Kelly predicted last summer in a pre-recorded panel discussion that Marcus Freeman would hold a head coaching position before too long.
Not necessarily at Notre Dame, as he later clarified. Not necessarily next year. But soon.
Turns out, very soon. As in, a few months later. And on college football’s biggest stage.
Notre Dame is expected to elevate Freeman from defensive coordinator to head coach, multiple sources confirmed to BlueandGold.com. He will replace Kelly, who left Nov. 29 for LSU after 12 seasons in the role.
Freeman, 35, came to Notre Dame as Clark Lea‘s replacement in January 2021 after four seasons as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. Notre Dame wooed him over a reported $2 million per year offer from, ironically enough, LSU. His first impact on the program was assembling an impressive defensive recruiting haul that is the backbone of Notre Dame’s No. 4-ranked 2022 class.
Later, after two rough games to start the year, he kept the Irish’s defense at a high level. Notre Dame ended the regular season having allowed just two touchdowns over the past 16 quarters. It allowed 18.3 points per game in the regular season, tied for 11th-best in the FBS. Notre Dame also finished tied for seventh in sacks, with 40, which set the Kelly-era record.
Against all odds, Notre Dame’s defense continued its upward trajectory after All-American safety Kyle Hamilton’s knee injury knocked him out for all but eight snaps of the final six games. The Irish turned to a previously up-and-down senior and two sophomores with no experience at the position to replace him and pulled it off. They did not allow a touchdown for 14 straight quarters, a streak that ended Nov. 27 at Stanford.
At Cincinnati, Freeman’s defenses had three straight seasons with an opponent completion rate below 54 percent and top-15 finishes in pass efficiency defense. The Bearcats were one of three teams to finish in the top 25 in passes defended per game from 2018-20 (LSU and Alabama were the others). His 2020 unit ranked fourth in yards per play (4.57) and eighth in scoring (16.8).
Current and former Notre Dame players, as well as Irish commits, propped up Freeman’s qualifications in the immediate wake of Kelly’s departure, voicing their support on social media. Hamilton did the same on an episode of the “Inside The Garage” podcast recorded the night Kelly left.
“I’ll put my vote out there for Marcus Freeman,” Hamilton said. “Since he has come in here, it feels like we’ve known him for years. He’s always even-keeled and the same guy every day. He’s a great leader and knows when to get on you, when to chew you up. He has a great sense of how you’re feeling.”
Freeman does not have any head-coaching experience, a trait that has previously not lent itself to success in his new job. Charlie Weis’ NFL pedigree was intriguing, but he was never a head coach before Notre Dame hired him in 2005. Notre Dame promoted Bob Davie from defensive coordinator in 1997 to replace Lou Holtz. Davie was fired five years later.
It is, though, worth noting the recent success of first-time head coaching in blue-blood programs. Kirby Smart took over Georgia in 2016 with no prior stints as a head coach. Current USC head coach Lincoln Riley did the same at Oklahoma in 2017, following two years as its offensive coordinator. Ohio State made Ryan Day the successor to Urban Meyer after just one season on staff as offensive coordinator.
Freeman will be the 32nd head coach in program history. He would be the youngest person to be hired into the role since 26-year-old Terry Brennan in 1954.
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