Blue and Gold Illustrated

March 2022

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM MARCH 2022 5 A t first glance, seven assistant coach vacancies in one off- season might convey a tire fire or a toxic culture. After all, the last time Notre Dame imported even six followed a 4-8 calamity begotten by a sud- denly feeble foundation. The time before that? A full reset and head coaching change in 2009. This time, though, Notre Dame is experiencing a byproduct of its prized culture. The culture Irish players demanded director of athletics Jack Swarbrick protect when Brian Kelly burned rubber out of town. The culture they swore Marcus Freeman could sustain if named the successor. The culture that pulled Isaiah Foskey and Jarrett Patterson back for one more season despite near-cer- tain NFL Draft selections awaiting them. Kelly's departure has made the play- ers and returning staff's belief in it im- possible to miss. This much turnover was neither an- ticipated nor desired when Notre Dame selected Freeman as Kelly's replacement Dec. 1 and induced a deluge of tweets and videos from coaches confirming that they were staying. Two who initially pledged to return are gone after unfore- seen promotions presented themselves. Another made a lateral move. Tight ends coach John McNulty is the latest. Nearly two months after that week of rallying, Boston College plucked him away to be its offensive coordina- tor. In late January, Louisville swooped in and took running backs coach Lance Taylor to run its offense. Healthy programs and strong cultures send assistants out in better shape than when they arrived — and onto bigger jobs. Case in point is McNulty, who found his desired reset following a 2019 firing from his job as Rutgers' offensive coordinator. Taylor came to Notre Dame as a coach on the rise and left with a ré- sumé strong enough to take the reins of a Power Five offense. Defensive line coach and player fa- vorite Mike Elston's departure for the same job at Michigan after 12 years isn't a promotion. It is, though, an under- standable move for someone who found himself no longer in consideration for the coordinator chance he wanted and saw a potentially better path toward ad- vancement at his alma mater. Add in special teams coordinator Brian Polian following Kelly to LSU, offensive line coach Jeff Quinn's dis- missal, wide receivers coach Del Alex- ander's team-induced departure and Freeman's own promotion, and the sum is a hefty hiring load for a first-time head coach. Rubber, meet road. Notre Dame bet on Freeman being not only a strong identifier of coaching talent, but capable of finding assistants who are seamless fits into the existing culture that fostered a 54-10 record the past five sea- sons. There are important culture stew- ards still around to help him keep it alive. Like offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who arrived five years ago. Like strength coach Matt Balis, who is as much a mental fortitude molder as he is a physical developer. And like Free- man, whose impact on players in one year was pronounced enough to earn a unanimous vote of confidence from the seven 2021 Notre Dame captains af- ter Kelly's exit. Re-hiring offen- sive line coach Harry Hiestand is a play for cultural enhancement and offensive line improvement. This 2022 staff will undeniably be Freeman's and will be built in line with his plans to enhance the program's standing while main- taining its culture. Those are two important reasons Notre Dame chose him despite his inexperience. The seven openings give Free- man ample chances to act on them right away. He has filled six so far, with defensive coordinator the last remaining one entering the second week in February. His staffing decisions can offer hints about specifics of his plan. Notre Dame's wide receiver room and offensive line needed the most enhanc- ing, as Twitter searches and message boards reminded. That's why Quinn and Alexander weren't retained — moves that were Freeman's call. The bowl pro- vided him an up-close look at the issues at both spots, and he decided change was needed. In come Chansi Stuckey and Hiestand to do it, one a riser and the other as close to a sure thing as possible. Elsewhere, Freeman has stressed the new defensive coordinator won't imple- ment his own scheme as much as he will adapt to the existing Notre Dame one — a sign he's willing to turn away rising stars if they don't mesh in a play for continuity. A stark lack thereof from the 2021 staff was unforeseen two months ago. Freeman's hiring proficiency won't be fully clear for a season or two, but on paper, he has assembled a talented coaching roster. All six hires have prior position coaching or coordinator expe- rience. For those eager to see the poten- tial reward of a program with his stamp on it, the chance for widespread staff reshaping ought to be exciting. ✦ Freeman's first Notre Dame coaching staff will have seven new faces on it, allowing him to move forward with his plans to enhance the pro- gram's standing while maintaining its culture. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Marcus Freeman Puts His Stamp On Revamped Coaching Staff Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL

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