Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2021

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

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Page 16 of 39 FEBRUARY 2021 17 do this,'" Freeman said in a Decem- ber interview with Cincinnati play- by-play announcer Dan Hoard. Freeman wouldn't hear it. "You can't talk me out of this," he said. "It's what I want to do." A competitor of Freeman's level needed something where he could win. The door had closed on playing football. The entry to coaching was open, and he ran through it. He could lead. He could take people to new places — with a whistle and white- board instead of pads and a helmet. "Marcus understood, 'This is what has happened to me,'" Minton said. "'I can't control that. If I could, it would be different. It's fate. This is the route I have to go.'" After a year as Fickell's graduate assistant, Hazell hired Freeman as linebackers coach when he became the head coach at Kent State. Hiring Freeman was neither a true decision nor risk for Hazell, who was around him all five years at Ohio State as the Buckeyes' receivers coach. He also had Freeman on his kickoff return team. At nearly every turn coach- ing him and in six years working together, Freeman's boundless en- thusiasm and hunger struck Hazell. "I'd had him over at my house and we'd battle if it was ping pong, the pool table, shuffleboard," Hazell said. "We were going to compete. Whether he was dripping in sweat at the end of a ping pong game or whatever it might be, that's what is in his fiber." He produced, too. Kent State went 12-4 in the Mid-American Confer- ence in Hazell and Freeman's two years there and won the league's East Division in 2012. A defense built on generating havoc leaned on lineback- ers Luke Batton and C.J. Malauulu, who became All-MAC selections in 2011 and 2012 after Freeman's ar- rival. Per Hazell's firsthand account, Freeman produces results because he's honest, inspiring rather than in- timidating, with a personal touch. "He's more of an encourage you coach as opposed to chew you out," Hazell said. "He has no problem get- ting on you if you're not hustling. But players will love him because they'll feel that he's always in their corner. "He's good with the group, but re- ally exceptional with the individual." The four years at Purdue from 2013-16 produced dreary records but a few standout linebackers. One of Free- man's first signees, Ja'Whaun Bent- ley, was a USA Today Freshman All- American in 2014 and later became a fifth-round draft pick. In Freeman's final season, redshirt freshman line- backer Markus Bailey was an honor- able mention All-Big Ten selection and later turned into a seventh-rounder. At Cincinnati, Freeman's defense shifted from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 to pri- marily a 3-3-5 alignment. It's a mul- tiple-front defense that was designed to be adaptable to the various styles of offenses in the American Athletic Conference. Whatever form it took, its identity was rooted in aggressive- ness, creating confusion and generat- ing turnovers. The Bearcats had the talent to slow down the explosive offenses they faced, but in watching them, their assignment-soundness stands out. That's a reflection of coaching, where players aren't swimming in confus- ing terminology they can't remember. "The last guy understands it as well as the first guy," Hazell said. "They'll be simple for the defense, but complex for the offense." 'HE COULD RECRUIT MOSS OFF A ROCK' On the recruiting front, Freeman's results are undeniable. Before leaving Cincinnati, he had already landed a pair of national top-250 prospects in the 2022 class. The Bearcats signed the top Group of Five class in 2021, 2020 and 2018, with a quartet of four- star defensive signees in there. They routinely beat Power Five programs for recruits. Since Freeman's hiring at Notre Dame Jan. 8, he has offered two line- backers and reached out to prior tar- gets at the position to let them know the change from Clark Lea to himself doesn't mean a drop in interest. "He's going to bring a different en- ergy," said Sebastian Cheeks, a top- 100 class of 2022 recruit from Evan- ston, Ill., who had grown close with Lea. "We've now talked about every single day on the phone." College football recruiting is a cauldron of self-absorption, inflated egos, phony personalities and snake oil sales. As a prospect, it's best ap- proached with skepticism and cau- tion. Freeman, though, draws strong reviews because — this might sound familiar — he's just himself. "He has lived their lives a lot closer than a lot of people have with his age, playing ability, all the other things involved," Hazell said. Only recently, though, had Free- man begun to reach beyond the Mid- west and into the top 250 with some frequency at Cincinnati. Now, with a Notre Dame logo on his chest when on the trail, he will be expected to sign top recruits who college foot- ball's ruling class covets. Overall, Freeman is tasked with keeping the Irish's defense perform- ing at the level Lea brought it to while also adding a few more blue- chip recruits to its talent reserves. It'd be unwise to doubt his player development ability, considering his rise is fueled by lifting up others to a previously unimagined level. Meanwhile, discussion around his recruiting potential has the tune of excitable impatience, like kids daydreaming about their potential Christmas gifts. It's less a question of if Freeman can advance Notre Dame's recruiting operation, but how far. "When those guys come in a room, do they have it or do they not?" Min- ton said, recalling Freeman's first visit to Wayne as a recruiter. "Are they ordinary or are they a little above? Marcus was a lot above. I know he was walking into my office and his old high school, but I heard it from other [high school coaches] too. He could recruit moss off a rock." If it all works, Freeman may not be long for South Bend. He's open about his ultimate goal of becoming a head coach. If he rises to that new level, it will likely be the result of pulling Notre Dame's defense up with him. Should the chance come, he has one staffer already committed. "I told him all the time that when you get a head job," Minton said. "I want to come clean jock straps for you." Twenty years later, there's only faith in him. ✦ "He's so good at praising the people around him, whether it was a player, teammate, coach. He's always going to give positive reinforcement. That's where infectious behavior comes in. He's just so supportive." FORMER KENT STATE AND PURDUE HEAD COACH DARRELL HAZELL ON FREEMAN

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