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Marcus Freeman Breaks Down The Notre Dame 2022 Defensive Signees

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman spoke with Irish Breakdown about his talented incoming freshmen on defense

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman took some time out of his very busy schedule to speak with Irish Breakdown about the 2022 defensive class. It was an outstanding haul that brought in playmakers on all three levels of the defense.

ON MEETING NEEDS, AND THE PROCESS

"Well, you have to think of it in two parts in that the areas of need for me, the focus was defense (when I first arrived). As I was putting this class together defensively, we looked at areas of need. Well, obviously when you become the head coach, offense is – the offensive side of the ball – matters .... So, the mindset then changed to develop relationships with the offensive guys who have committed and have signed or haven’t signed yet to Notre Dame. And so, that’s kind of been the tempo. Hey, what did we need to address on defense? We needed to address obviously the linebacker position. We signed four guys, and those guys were obviously all verbally committed for quite a while. We signed three defensive linemen ....

"Then we were looking for speed – speed and athleticism at the defensive back position. With Jaden Mickey and Ben Morrison, and then you’re signing Jayden Bellamy, that kind of was the mindset defensively on what we were looking for. We knew it was going to be a heavy linebacker class in that we really wanted to focus on that. 

"And so then, you become the head coach. So now it’s, 'Hey, how do you develop a relationship and you get to the know the families and coaches and people on the offensive side of the ball, and obviously with Bryce McPherson, our punter?' That’s been my mindset since signing, well since I’ve been the head coach. Get into the homes, develop relationships with the offensive side of the ball, some of them that are here now and some of them that haven’t been here and will come here in June."

PUTTING THE LINEBACKER CLASS TOGETHER

"Nolan (Ziegler) was committed when I got here, and I watched his film – loved him. But also knew the background. He was a huge part of keeping this class – and putting this class together, and, he did a great job at that. 

"Josh (Burnham) had already been offered and so the first day I was here, probably within the first week, we started going through all the top linebackers in the country. I had known about Jaylen Sneed because of his high school coach. His high school coach is a good friend of mine. He’s from Ohio – his name is B.J. Payne – and he told me about Jaylen Sneed at Cincinnati. ....  I didn’t have much interaction with him while I was at Cincinnati, but obviously he was one of the first kids I called and offered when I was here. 

"With Junior (Tuihalamaka), you turned on his film and you a saw big, physical, impressive middle linebacker. He kind of transformed his body from his junior to senior year, just becoming really a more athletic sideline-to-sideline player, and they started using him outside a little bit more at his high school. It was good to see him develop into instead of just a Mike, to be a three-position linebacker that can flow sideline-to-sideline and make plays. 

"With Josh, he had already been offered. Big athlete, he’s a big athlete. I remember when I first saw Josh, I thought he was a basketball player. I remember how tall and long he was. I wasn’t used to seeing guys like that at the linebacker position. And then you get to watch his film, you get to know him and his family, and you say ok, he’s a dynamic player that will continue to develop. I’m excited to see what he develops into because it’s hard to find that length and size and athleticism and not find a position for him on the football field."

ON THE POSITION JAYLEN SNEED WILL PLAY

"Right now in my head I think Rover. I wasn’t here with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but they say he has a lot of similar traits to those traits that Wu possessed. He’s extremely explosive, twitchy. I think I’m probably going to start him at the Rover position, and I think Josh would probably be a Mike or Will which are very similar positions within our defensive scheme. ... Then you gotta see, 'Hey, at the end of the day you have to put your best three players on the field."

WHAT HE SEENS IN NOLAN ZIEGLER

"I think sometimes because of the size of his school he can be a little bit under recruited. I know Catholic Central in Grand Rapids isn’t enormous, it isn’t the biggest school in Michigan, but that sometimes comes with being at a smaller school. But I’ve seen him within these first three weeks show some things, some competitiveness, some of the extra work that he does, that show this guy is going to find a way to become a player for us. They’re running 10-yard sprints last week and he was with the fastest group. And that’s no matter what position you’re in. That spoke volumes to me that he was the only linebacker in that fast group. Ok, this guy’s explosive, he’s competitive, and he’s going to find a way to get on this football field."

WHAT HE LIKED ABOUT TYSON FORD AND AIDEN GOBAIRA AT END

"The length. The length. We looked for length in those two guys. Tyson (Ford) was a guy, when I got here, I don’t think we had a great relationship with him. We had gotten word he might be going somewhere else, but we just developed a relationship right away, and (Mike) Elston did a great job when he was here and was able to get in deep with his family, made a connection, and he decided to come here. But he possesses the length that you are looking for.

"Aidan (Gobaira) is the same way. Not size yet, Aidan’s weight is not yet where we need it to be, but that length to me is something you don’t develop. You have it or you don’t, and he can play on an edge. You can move him inside to be a 3-4 end or a 4-3 end, and a guy that to me can do multiple different things. I’m excited to see after an offseason with Balis what their (bodies) will turn into, and then let them go play. Let them go play and develop and develop under Coach (Al) Washington. I’m excited for their future."

FORD AND GOBAIRA AS PASS RUSHERS

"I think it’s always going to be evolving, but length is important. Length gives you the ability to use your arm length to create separation between the defensive player and the offensive player. Length helps you with your pass rush. That’s why (Isaiah) Foskey is such a good pass rusher, and some of the other guys we have that are long guys that can use their arms to stay away from the offensive linemen. Both of those guys, with Tyson and Aidan, they bring that length. 

"But to me, great pass rush games are created by a great pass rush, so we have to be able to rush four and they get pass rush ability. They create some pass rush pressure on the quarterback and then off of those, now you’re able to run your games, you’re able to run twists, and picks, and stunts. I think you have to be able to get four guys and say, 'Go get after the quarterback' and feel like they can get pressure, because that sets up everything off of it."

ON DT DONOVAN HINISH

"He’s not here yet, but the proof is in the pudding with Kurt. They say, he probably in high school, he might be a little better – and now this is the words of others, not me. Because I didn’t see Kurt Hinish in high school, let’s be clear, some people told me he’s a little bit ahead of where Kurt was at this stage in high school. If that’s the case, you talk about how Kurt has started more games for us on defense than probably anybody here at Notre Dame. They’re the same mentality. Just tough, hardworking, they’re going to instantly make those around them better, and that’s what I’m excited for with Donovan and I can’t wait to get him here in June too."

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ON CORNERBACK BENJAMIN MORRISON

"I see length. I see physicality. You can match up his film with all of the great players in the country and you won’t find a better tackler or a more physical football player. People don’t understand, that’s such a part of playing cornerback nowadays. Corners have to tackle. Corners have to be physical at the line of scrimmage. Great cover corners are physical at the line of scrimmage, and they’re long – they use their arms, and Benjamin Morrison is that. He is going to be an extremely good player here. He is extremely intelligent, extremely competitive, long, and physical. Like I don’t know what other traits other people look for, but those are the traits I believe great corners have.

"He plays really good football in Arizona and I’ve seen him keep up and run with the best of the best. I know he’s a track kid too, and before he had (surgery) ... he was running good times. I know he’s fast enough. I know he can run. I’m just excited to see him do it here live in-person."

ON CORNERBACK JADEN MICKEY

"Ultra-competitive. That’s the minute you meet him, you meet his family you say, ok this dude is an ultimate competitor. I saw it today when I was out there watching them run competitive sprints and he’s at the front of the group as a freshman. Sometimes, that isn't speed, that’s about competitiveness and he has that. That’s what is going to give a kid that’s 5-11, 175 pounds, that maybe doesn’t have the length of a 6-1 guy the chance to play at this level, because he’s ultra-competitive.

ON THE QUALITY OF HIS HIGH SCHOOL COMPETITION

"If you’re going against some of the best players in the country every week and every day in practice, that’s going to help you develop. That’s going to help you become a better player. That’s one of the reasons we say, 'Come to Notre Dame'. Don’t go somewhere that it’s going to be easy to just step on the field. Come here and be developed every day in practice going against some of the best players in the country."

ON JAYDEN BELLAMY'S POSITION AND GAME

"I see all three from safety to corner to nickel. I think we’ll start him probably at safety, but I think he can be a three-position guy between safety, corner, and nickel. We’ve seen a little bit of that in Tariq Bracy, and that’s who Jaylen Bellamy reminds me of. A kid that you can play at corner – we used Tariq Bracy at safety and obviously played in the nickel. Ramon Henderson the same type of way. 

"Jayden is another kid that is ultra-competitive, and that’s one thing you’ll hear me say and look for. We’re looking for ultra-competitive people. Those guys tend to find a way to improve faster than maybe somebody with maybe more God-given ability, because competitive people develop because of their skillset. They compete every day in practice they compete every day in the game, and so those type of players to me develop faster than guys who aren’t competitive, and so we look for that competitive spirit in all the kids we recruit and Jayden Bellamy is another one of those guys who is ultra-competitive.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE DEFENSIVE CLASS

"I feel extremely excited and confident in this class that we have coming in. How does that class mesh with the current guys we have here? How does that roster get to the point where they’re at close to their maximum ability? And that’s the challenge. Every day we continue to push on the field, in the weight room, off the field, to try to get a group of guys to get as close to their maximum ability that they can. And then, we’re always looking for ways to constantly improve your roster. How do you continue to bring guys in that are going to help you raise the level of that maximum ability? And so, it’s a constant cycle and evolution of trying to have success."

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Notre Dame 2023 Class Big Board

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