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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM PRESEASON 2022 5 ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at BY PATRICK ENGEL B usinessman and Norte Dame grad Tom Mendoza hopped on a Zoom meeting with about 10 former Irish football players a few days before Marcus Freeman was introduced as head coach last December, wanting to hear their perspective and feelings on the program's new leader. This wasn't just any collection of football alums. They were former stars who tasted success, won championships while at Notre Dame, understood the formula for winning and had opinions on who should be charged with restoring the program to those heights. Wide receiver Tom Gatewood and defensive lineman Chris Zorich, both Irish All-Americans, were among the meeting attendees. The message itself from those former stars was what Mendoza expected. The unanimity in its enthusiasm, though, struck him. "I've never seen the entire com- munity so behind one person and one thing," Mendoza, Notre Dame's busi- ness school namesake, recalled. Freeman stepped behind a podium in the Irish Athletic Center Dec. 6 with a wave of support from current play- ers, alumni and fans. Cries for him to succeed Brian Kelly came from every direction. He's now weeks away from making his regular-season debut when Notre Dame opens at Ohio State Sept. 3. The belief in him has only increased in the nearly nine months between then and now, perhaps to the point where it might even allow him more leeway as he navigates his first season as a head coach. That's not to suggest any missteps and losses this year won't be just as frustrating in the moment for fans as they normally are. This is college football, after all. Emo- tion, roller coaster rides and even overre- action are inextricable from its fiber. But the valleys this season just might sting less when their immediacy wears off because of how Freeman has altered the big-picture outlook in his first offseason. He inherited a steady winner and was tasked with leading it up the final few steps it has too often tripped over in re- cent years. Turns out, that's a process he can start before even coaching a full sea- son. He's not just garnering honeymoon phase favor because he's new blood. He has given fans a reason to dream big. "What's so important is people see a path for us to make that next leap," Mendoza said. Freeman's first nine months on the job have put that path in plain sight, so much so that they've injected the sup- port that Mendoza felt on that Zoom call into every crevice of the fan base. It's partially a function of the con- text. Notre Dame's 54-10 run with two College Football Playoff appearances from 2017-21 established the Irish as a consistently high-end program, but simultaneously strengthened the idea that they had hit a ceiling. Three-possession playoff losses to teams in the sport's top group will do that. So will years of good-but-not- elite recruiting classes that didn't in- spire much hope of climbing higher. "We were right on the cusp, but there weren't many people who could see a path for us to get into that first group the way we were," Mendoza said. "It's almost like we were maxing out. Now, nobody feels like we're maxing out." A glance at the recruiting classes evokes grand visions, not grumbles. Notre Dame's 2023 class is currently a top-five haul that owned the No. 1 spot in the On3 Consensus team recruiting rankings for much of the spring and early summer. The Irish's 2024 class sits atop those rankings. The former is tracking toward the team's highest finish since at least 2013 (fourth). The latter includes four-star quarter- back CJ Carr, who would be the highest- rated offensive player (No. 21 overall) to sign with Notre Dame since Gunner Kiel (No. 18) in 2012, per the On3 Consensus. Recruiting isn't the only component of Notre Dame reaching that summit — Freeman has to prove himself as an in-game and game-week coach — but it's a crucial one. And it was the first one Freeman could attack. It's fuel for drumming up hope and belief the program can push upward. He discusses recruiting and selling Notre Dame with a fervor not seen in his job in some time, if ever. (And certainly not seen in his predecessor.) Freeman pledged he would be the lead recruiter on every prospect Notre Dame is targeting. It speaks to a proactive per- sonality that has also revealed itself in his hunger to better himself and grow as a coach in every possible way. That growth isn't done yet, though. No head coach is his best self after his first season. That portends a learning curve in a season with a schedule that affords little margin for error. There will likely be decisions Freeman wishes he could do over. Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick signed up for those because he believed in the ceiling of a Freeman-led team. The championship standards aren't lowered for his first year, though. A No. 5 ranking in the preseason Associated Press top 25 sets high expectations for Year 1. In that light, a two- or three-loss season would be a disappointment, but not likely one that dents the long-term dreams. "At the end of the day, it's not a one- season thing," Mendoza said. "In two or three years, my belief and almost every- one's belief, is this guy is going to make us a real powerhouse." ✦ Marcus Freeman's work in his first offseason as head coach has allowed Notre Dame fans to dream big. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Big-Picture Strides Could Buy Short-Term Leeway

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