Notre Dame is set to dive head first into its search for a defensive coordinator this week, and a top candidate for the position is Cincinnati defensive boss Marcus Freeman.
Freeman is a hot coaching commodity, and various reports have him linked to LSU, Auburn and Notre Dame. Basically, if you're a big time program and need a defensive coordinator, Freeman is going to be at or near the top of the list.
Tom Loy of Irish Illustrated has reported that Freeman will be meeting with Notre Dame staff this week, and a more formal interview could follow.
Freeman is not a lock to leave Cincinnati, and it's well known he wants to be a head coach sooner rather than later. That means if Notre Dame is serious about getting the biggest name on the market it needs to act quickly, pursue Freeman like the five-star coach he is, and then ante up with big time bucks.
So why is Freeman considered such a hot coaching candidate? Let's dive into the resume.
THE MARCUS FREEMAN RESUME
Freeman has been the Cincinnati defensive coordinator for each of the last four seasons. Prior to that he was the co-defensive coordinator at Purdue as a 29-year old. He coached linebackers at Purdue from 2013-15, coached linebackers for two years at Kent State (2011-12) and he began his career as a graduation assistant at Ohio State (2010).
Freeman played linebacker for the Buckeyes from 2004-2008.
Freeman inherited a poor defense when he and head coach Luke Fickell arrived prior to the 2017 season. Cincinnati gave up almost 30 points per game in the three years prior to their arrival, but by his second season the Bearcats had a top-ranked defense.
The graph below shows what the Cincinnati defensive numbers looked like in the three seasons prior to Freeman's arrival, in his first season and what it has done the last three seasons. For comparison's sake, I compared his last three season's numbers to the numbers from the Notre Dame defense.
Beyond the numbers, there are many important reasons why Freeman had so much success, and why he's such a coveted coach.
1. Pedigree - I am a big believer in pedigree, which is who a coach learns from as a coach and player. For Freeman, his college position coach was Fickell, and he has continued to learn from Fickell during the last four seasons.
In 2011-12 he was the linebackers coach at Kent State, where he worked under Jon Heacock, a well-respected defensive coach who is currently running the defense at Iowa State. Freeman's defensive coordinator at Ohio State was Heacock's older brother, Jim.
That's a strong pedigree for Freeman.
2. Strong Teacher - From all accounts Freeman is a strong teacher, which is a vitally important part of being a great defensive coordinator. It's the old adage that it doesn't matter how much you know as a coach, it's how much your players know and how much they can execute at a high level.
When I break down Cincinnati's film I see a group that knows how to play the game. They are fundamentally sound, they are aggressive and they force offenses to beat them. Cincinnati is also a very confident group of defenders.
Cincinnati had a veteran squad in 2020, but for much of Freeman's career we've seen him thrive at getting young players onto the field, and they play well when they get there. You can't do that and have strong defenses unless you know how to teach.
3. Diverse Scheme - Freeman runs a 3-3-5 defense at Cincinnati, but that isn't what he started with and it's not what you see in his background.
He made that switch due to being in the American Athletic Conference, which is loaded with high-octane, up-tempo spread offenses, and the 3-3-5 gives his defense the ability to matchup athletically with those offenses.
Within that 3-3-5 you'll see Freeman show a lot of different looks and coverages. He'll show pure 3-man fronts, he'll show 4-man fronts that look at lot like what you see at Notre Dame, and you'll see some 3-2-6 type of looks as well when the need arises. They are aggressive with their coverage schemes, playing a lot of man but showing enough zone to force quarterbacks into a lot of mistakes.
As an assistant he was part of staffs that implemented a 4-3 and a 3-4, so he has seen a lot of different types of defenses during his tenure.
Freeman will bring pressures from all over the field and on all three levels, but what I like about his pressure package is that it is sound and well-designed, attacking the weaknesses of the opponent's protection schemes. That means he's not often bringing overload blitzes from a numbers standpoint, which means he doesn't leave his defense exposed all that often.
His basic structure would transition smoothly to Notre Dame, and he could easily adapt to a 4-2-5 look without much change. That's important because it means the current roster will be able to quickly settle into Freeman's defense, and him building the defense to fit the players won't require much adaptation from what he already does.
4. Success In An Offensive League - As I mentioned above, Freeman has coached in an offensive league the last four years. That hasn't kept his defense from being outstanding and putting up great numbers.
In the last three years the Bearcats ranked 8th, 8th and 24th in scoring defense, 4th, 13th and 31st in yards allowed per play, 13th, 14th and 44th in rush defense and 1st, 5th and 9th in opponent completion percentage.
Notre Dame's schedule is rarely filled with as many high-octane offenses as what Freeman has had to face the last four seasons. That bodes well for his ability to continue building on the strong defensive performance we've seen from Notre Dame in recent seasons, should he end up in South Bend.
5. Reputation As A Strong Recruiting - Freeman has built a reputation as a strong recruiter. He's young, he played at Ohio State, he played in the NFL and he can certainly relate to younger student-athletes for all of those reasons.
The big concern in regards to hiring Freeman is the fact he hasn't hidden the fact he wants to be a head coach. Is it worth hiring him, knowing he could be gone in one season? That's certainly something that must be considered.
One way to look at it, however, is that Freeman could continue to mentor current Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, who was the corners coach at Cincinnati in 2018 and 2019. Mickens is just one year younger than Freeman, and he's had a strong start to his coaching career. Perhaps Freeman could groom Mickens to be his replacement should he leave in a season or two.
Landing Freeman likely won't be easy, but he's worth taking a shot at. Notre Dame needs to put its best foot forward and become a legitimate contender for his services.
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