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Marcus Freeman resonating with Notre Dame post Kelly tenure
Marcus Freeman is set to begin his first full season as the head coach of the Fighting Irish after taking over before the team’s Fiesta Bowl matchup. (Credit: South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Marcus Freeman resonating with Notre Dame post Kelly tenure

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (BVM) – Marcus Freeman has been tasked with leading the Fighting Irish program into a new era of Notre Dame football. With Brian Kelly now out of the picture, he’s hoping he can make it a seamless transition, and so far, the early returns have sounded positive. 

Throughout offseason workouts and summer drills, players are taking notice of the new style their head coach is bringing in. After taking over the reins of the program just weeks before a bowl game, Freeman is making sure to put his stamp on the team given a more regular set of time constraints.

“This is no shade to Coach Kelly, I love Coach Kelly, but [he] would never be around during the summers or anything,” tight end Michael Mayer told the Bussin’ With The Boys Podcast. “And Freeman has been to pretty much everything. I think Coach Kelly was probably out recruiting or doing whatever he needed to do but it’s pretty nice to have Freeman around all summer long, really.”

Marcus Freeman Fiesta Bowl
Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2022 Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. (Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

The much analyzed departure of Brian Kelly to LSU took the sports world by storm after becoming one of a handful of prolific coaches that jumped ship elsewhere. The news didn’t seem to just surprise onlookers either, as current coaches and players received the same shock after being in the midst of preparation for the team’s Fiesta Bowl matchup against Oklahoma State.

With a current head-coaching record of 0-1, Freeman has received the backing of the university and his peers. As he looks to institute his own culture, it’s easy to see what the former collegiate athlete himself finds important when it comes to team building. As Notre Dame prepares for their primetime Week 1 matchup against Ohio State, Freeman has begun to set a standard that his players are starting to get behind.

“He’s in our lifts, he’s in our runs, he’s in it,” Mayer said. “… After every run he gives us a speech, gives us a talk after every lift. I’m not saying that’s bad or good between Freeman and Kelly, but those are just their two different kind of styles. And I would say everybody probably prefers Freeman’s style.”

Kelly’s coaching style and demeanor have been highly criticized over the years with more than enough former coaches, players and contemporaries voicing their own personal experiences. With the introduction of Freeman, it was easy to see that the program was headed towards a changing of the guard, specifically when it comes to coaching styles. 

Freeman entered with the reputation of being a “players coach,” already providing early returns with top-ranked recruiting classes in 2023 and 2024. The Fighting Irish head coach even participated in a new jersey-reveal skit playing off the movie “The Hangover,” something Kelly likely would have never participated in.

On the field, Freeman’s defensive prowess should become the staple of future Notre Dame teams with already proven success in his short time coaching. During his time as a defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Freeman helped the Bearcats to the top of college football metrics, ranking 13th in total defense (324.6 yards per game) and eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) during the team’s run in 2020. 

Last season, the Fighting Irish ranked in the top 15 for points allowed in the country, conceding just 19.7 points per game in his first season as the team’s coordinator. With another year in his system, the returns should look even better as Notre Dame looks to accelerate its progression on that side of the ball.

After losing star safety Kyle Hamilton to the NFL draft, Freeman and his staff quickly rebounded by adding Northwestern transfer safety Brandon Joseph, who announced his decision to join the program back in January. Joseph is one of the top playmakers in the country at the position and was a part of the Wildcats’ dynamic secondary in 2020. The hope is he can step right into Hamilton’s previous role as the team’s captain and take over what should be an even more improved unit on the defensive side.

“The reason I was in the transfer portal was to join one of the best defenses in the country,” Joseph told Sports Illustrated. “I wanted to be surrounded by great players and great coaches that can take my game to the next level. That is why Notre Dame is a great fit.”

Marcus Freeman jersey reveal
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman featured in the Fighting Irish’s “Shamrock Series” jersey reveal skit playing off the movie, “The Hangover.” (Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

Notre Dame’s biggest question mark, however, may be on the offensive side, as Freeman has entrusted offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to lead the ship as the Fighting Irish look to solve their open quarterback battle. With mixed play from 2021 starter Jack Coan, Freeman and his staff are looking to find more consistency from the position as they aim to make this year’s playoffs. The program had always received solid quarterback play throughout Kelly’s tenure as head coach, but were never able to receive the needed bump from the position in the team’s most important games; scoring just 14 points in its 2020 College Football Playoff matchup against Alabama, and just three points against Clemson in the 2018 playoffs. 

Freeman will have to make an important decision at the position after seeing the early returns of the team’s competition between Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner throughout the spring. Although the Notre Dame head coach and his staff have talked about it being an open battle, all signs point to Buchner heading the ship. 

As Freeman prepares for what should be a crucial upcoming season, his team is going to have to come out strong with a Week 1 battle against likely preseason favorite, Ohio State. With other matchups including Clemson and USC, the road appears open for Freeman to leave his mark in what could be a historic first campaign.