Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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16 FEBRUARY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL T he only time Jay Minton ques- tioned Marcus Freeman was before he met him. One day in 2000, Minton peered out a window of his house and saw a boy about, oh, 14, heading to fish at the nearby pond. Alongside him was Michael Freeman, a start- ing defensive back for Minton on the football team at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, near Day- ton. Minton asked his daughter who he was. Her response: "That's Marcus Freeman." Minton perked up. That's Marcus Freeman? A name Minton had heard in passing because of his football skills was really this eighth-grader with little definition to him and a "roly poly" body? "I wasn't sure he'd be able to play for us," Minton said of his initial im- pression, laughing at the idea. "I'm glad I told that only to my daughter. I would've looked like a real turkey." Freeman, it turns out, showed up to practices that fall looking the part and forced his way onto the field. By mid- season of his freshman year, he was a starting varsity defensive end. When his Wayne career ended, he was a top-40 recruit headed to Ohio State to play linebacker who also moon- lighted at fullback and punted his senior year. An indispensable piece. Once Minton finally met Freeman after that initial size-up, none of it was too surprising. Neither is ev- erything that has happened since. He ponders an 11-season coaching career that has led Freeman, 35, to Notre Dame as the program's new defensive coordinator and thinks, yes, that's about right. "There's no secret to the success he is having," Minton said. "That's Marcus. That's who he was going to be, who he was destined to be." Freeman keeps raising his own stock because of his ability to elevate others. He has demonstrated a knack for milking the most out of his play- ers and an allergy to underachieving. In four years as Cincinnati's defen- sive coordinator, he helped shape the Bearcats' defense into one of the nation's best all-around units that fu- eled a 31-6 record from 2018-20. A sharp schematic mind and dis- tinct teaching skills are two critical components of his rise. But Freeman is also here because he has simply been himself. "Infectious," as Minton puts it when summing up the pas- sion, competitiveness and drive he has observed for more than 20 years. Relationships with players and an ability to inspire them are a natural byproduct, just as they were when he roamed central Ohio's high school football fields. "When he's on the field as a team- mate, you're going to play better and as good as you can play," Minton said. "He just set the bar high as a leader for his group." "He's so good at praising the people around him, whether it was a player, teammate, coach," added Darrell Hazell, who gave Freeman his first full-time job at Kent State in 2011. "He's always going to give positive reinforcement. That's where infectious behavior comes in. He's just so supportive." PAVING HIS PATH Freeman's mind was made up, no matter what mentor Luke Fickell tried to tell him. In 2010, his NFL career over after a year due to an enlarged heart condition, Freeman called Fickell — his position coach at Ohio State from 2004-08 — and said he wanted to break into coaching. They met in Fickell's office early the next morning. "I remember going in and the first thing he said was, 'You don't want to 'INFECTIOUS' New Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman's passion, competitiveness and drive inspire those around him Freeman paved his path to Notre Dame's defensive coordinator job by getting the most out of his players. PHOTO COURTESY CINCINNATI

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