Despite being perhaps the most highly-sought assistant coach this offseason, despite opting to join Notre Dame amid an all-out push from LSU, despite leaving a top-20 program with a high 2021 ceiling, new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has no intentions of exerting his influence too quickly in South Bend.
Why fix what isn’t broken?
“Notre Dame’s defense has been good for many, many years,” Freemain said earlier this month. “You got to be a crazy person to come in here and say, ‘We’re going to change what you’ve done to have success to being [in the] College Football Playoff two of the past three years. We’re going to change everything we’ve done defensively.’ You’re crazy to think that as a defensive coordinator.”
That was part of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s intent as he looked for Clark Lea’s replacement. Notre Dame has spent the last five years recruiting to a four-down front, looking to highlight an outside linebacker, keeping enough large defensive ends on hand to create a third-down pass-rush package to torment opposing quarterbacks. The system has worked, resoundingly well.
Kelly didn’t want a coach who would throw that foundation out the window, but that does not mean Freeman will be completely hands-off.
“Our alignments might change, the exact technique might change, but there’s some similarities into where you align and what you’re asked to do within the scheme,” Freeman said. “… A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Ultimately, all I care about is we put our guys in the position to be successful and play fast.”
That has been the modus operandi of Freeman’s defenses. Simple but aggressive.
That formula led Cincinnati to allowing only 16.8 points per game in 2020, good for No. 8 in the country. Comparison: The Irish gave up 19.7 points per game, No. 14. The Bearcats had three sacks per game (No. 16), 7.3 tackles for loss (No. 24) and forced 21 turnovers in 10 games.
Freeman does not try to confuse the opposing offense so much as simply outplay it.