Marcus Freeman spent the 2022 season working his way out of a comfort zone, learning to become a head coach. In the meantime, the former defensive coordinator skewed his attention in practice toward the side of the ball he knew best, taking a less hands-on approach with the offense.

It’s not that Notre Dame’s first-year head coach didn’t understand what the Irish were trying to do under offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, nor that he didn’t have final say over offensive philosophy — he green-lit the play-action pass that put away Clemson. But Freeman kept the offensive playbook at arm’s length from a day-to-day perspective, both because he could and because he had to. Rees called plays, Freeman built relationships.

Now Freeman’s period of gradual learning may be over.

When Rees boarded that Alabama plane bound for Tuscaloosa on Thursday afternoon to interview for the Crimson Tide offensive coordinator job, the next phase of Freeman’s evolution as a head coach began. Because even if Rees returns to South Bend — a source with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic Rees had not made up his mind before takeoff — it’s clear the clock is ticking on his eventual departure.

And it’s a good bet Marcus Freeman has spent the past year getting ready for this.

When Freeman was promoted in December 2021, one pillar of his candidacy was the stability that came with keeping an accomplished staff in place. Notre Dame had just notched its fifth consecutive season with double-digit wins. The recruiting operation was efficient, with the potential to find another gear. Notre Dame was no longer the broken program Brian Kelly walked into. It was stable enough that replacing Kelly with an inexperienced head coach was a calculated risk, not a reckless one.