Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2021

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

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Page 4 of 39 FEBRUARY 2021 5 B rian Kelly's first answer to the question he initially didn't en- tertain publicly came in his ac- tions a week later. Asked multiple times after a 31-14 loss to Alabama in the College Foot- ball Playoff about needed tweaks for Notre Dame to get beyond just mak- ing the CFP and its habitual spot be- low the sport's titans, Kelly bristled. He didn't want to disclose anything or address any need to. "We're going to keep getting here," he said. "And we're going to keep banging at it." Not seven days afterward, he ap- pears to have already knocked down one door and made a statement. Notre Dame's hiring of Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Free- man to the same position sure seems to indicate he is thinking with next steps in mind. Thinking the Irish can push a couple more buttons to reach even higher than 43-8 since 2017 and two CFP appearances in three years. Thinking of ways to shrink the chasm between Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and the rest of college football. Notre Dame has been at the front of the pack among teams chasing those special few, but is still seeing the tail- lights from the same distance. Though snagging Freeman is merely one step of many others necessary before Notre Dame is within reach of them, the way Kelly and the Irish scooped him up is an encouraging first one. Kelly and Notre Dame's brass tar- geted a coveted up-and-coming de- fensive coordinator linked to several major openings and eventually found itself battling 2019 national champion LSU head-to-head for his services. The Tigers paid their 2019 defensive coor- dinator, Dave Aranda, $2.5 million per year before he left to be a head coach. They gave successor Bo Pelini a three- year, $6.9 million deal and paid him to go away after just one season. On cue, LSU reportedly was pre- pared to pay Freeman around $2 mil- lion per year. It's an attractive job that can lead to head-coaching opportuni- ties — Freeman's ultimate goal. The Tigers won't be short on talent. Yet Notre Dame won the race. What felt like a brewing Freeman- LSU match late in the morning on Jan. 8 ended with a tweet depicting Freeman in blue and gold sent from Notre Dame football's official account at exactly 6 p.m. ET the same day. Kelly identified Freeman as the top priority and didn't let him wrestle free. One had to wonder if the 2017 gut punch of losing former defen- sive coordinator Mike Elko to a wealthy SEC team became refreshed in his mind. Per a report from Foot-, Freeman's salary is expected to exceed predecessor Clark Lea's $1.6 million per year. To beat the best on the field, it sure helps to beat them for coaches. Re- cruits, too. Whether Freeman can do the latter is as significant as his abil- ity to keep the Irish defense at the level to which Lea brought it. One part of Kelly's statement in announc- ing Freeman's hire conveys the head coach's complete confidence. "He is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks," Kelly said. Kelly's comments before the 2019 Camping World Bowl about push- ing into the top five of the recruiting rankings and residing safely in the top 10 stood out in their frankness and boldness. A good goal, in theory. One he and the Notre Dame faithful could agree on. A requirement if the Irish want to win a national title. Left unclear then were identifiable and tangible steps to get there. In some ways, those are still to be determined or executed. But secur- ing a coordinator with Freeman's re- cruiting reputation makes the waters a little less murky. He had already landed a pair of commitments from four-star recruits to Cincinnati's 2022 class. The Bearcats' 2021 class ranks No. 34 nationally, 13 spots higher than the next Group of Five team. Its three highest-rated signees all play defense. Of course, there's the matter of running the defense. On that, Lea leaves a big hole and set a pro- nounced standard. As much as Free- man's hire reverberated, this year of- fered a sobering reminder no coach is ever a certain success. Tom Herman, the flavor of the 2017 coaching cycle dubbed a home-run hire, will pocket north of $15 million to do anything other than coach Texas' football team. Don't think Kelly is missing the im- portance of the on-field competency and the immeasurable amount of trust he puts into the defensive coordinator. His first one (Bob Diaco) and Lea navi- gated Notre Dame's defense to top- flight levels. The wrong hire (Brian VanGorder) nearly got him fired. At the same time, Freeman's track record is everything desired when identifying strong fits and a worthy defensive boss. Cincinnati's 2020 defense ranked fourth nationally in yards per play, eighth in scoring, ninth in opponent completion rate, 11th in passes de- fended and second in the Fremeau Efficiency Index. The Bearcats are one of three teams to finish in the national top 25 in passes defended every year from 2018-20. LSU and Alabama are the others. Freeman implemented a 3-3-5 defense in 2019, but Cincinnati remained multiple in its fronts. The questions around Freeman translating that production to Notre Dame won't have clearer answers until an early September Sunday night in Tallahassee, Fla., and at least 12 other weekends next fall. A small yet crucial part of the an- swer to a larger question, though, has already surfaced. ✦ Marcus Freeman's Hiring Said The Quiet Part Out Loud ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Notre Dame made a big statement in how it landed Freeman's services, besting LSU for the coveted up-and-coming defensive coordinator. PHOTO COURTESY CINCINNATI

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