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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman Notebook | 2.3

February 3, 2021

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman spoke for the first time since taking over the job on Wednesday afternoon. 

On the first few weeks on the job:
”It's an honor to be here to be a part of this program to be a part of Coach Kelly's staff. I'm extremely excited. I'm eager to get to work. It's been a crazy three weeks - been here probably a little bit over three weeks. You at first try to get to know and connect with your players. It's hard when they were gone and school hadn't started till this week and to try to get to know them over FaceTime and over the telephone and to make a connection with them was the first thing I wanted to do. Then I wanted to get right to work. I wanted to evaluate our current roster and kind of pick the brains of our recruiting staff and the people around here and start recruiting.

“It's a unique process in a way. I'm finding out the way that the University of Notre Dame football program recruits and it's different than I've ever done. It's from coast to coast, every state in the United States is up for grabs for us. We're going to evaluate every player across the nation and it's nothing like I've ever done.

“I've been more regional. Find the best players in your local region and then maybe get one or two outside the region. It's a very unique process in terms of - you have to find the right guys that fit your program and what you're looking to do here at the University of Notre Dame. The student-athlete here is very unique and I'm finding that out. I'm leaning on our staff to try to figure out what's the right fit.

“I couldn't tell you in three and a half weeks exactly who we’re able to offer and get, but I'm leaning on our entire recruiting staff, Coach Polian obviously, and his staff to find the right guys, the best players in the country that fit Notre Dame. So it's been exciting.

“It's been a learning curve, but I can't tell you how excited I am to be here and to get started, to get started with our players, to get started with our staff and to get going.”

On if he has an idea of what kind of athletes fit at Notre Dame:
”I'm finding out every day how special this place is. I say that because when you're recruiting at Notre Dame, it's unique in terms of you can get every player in the country to answer your phone call or every player in the country to return your call because they respect the brand. They respect the University of Notre Dame. It's been unique in that way.

“We have to find the guys that fit this place because it's what's best for us and what's best for them. I’m continuing to learn every day what that guy is and what that student-athlete is like because it is a very unique individual.”

On recruiting to Notre Dame’s current scheme:
“In terms of recruiting to their scheme, my scheme - it's going to be our scheme. I'm big on, let's get the best players that we can find and we can tailor our scheme around those guys. That's the same thing I'm doing now with the staff. I'm not coming in here, dropping a book and saying, ‘This is what we're going to do.’

“Let's evaluate our guys. Let's evaluate the best players on our defense and put them in positions to be successful and that's how I've always been. I've never said, ‘Hey, you have to fit this position.’ What is his positive traits? What things does he do well, and let's make sure that we tailor our defense around those strengths.”

On the 2021 recruiting class being adaptable to what he has done in the past:
“Again, I'm going to say what we're looking for defensively - let's start with the things that are gonna help us have success is the way we play. That's what our players want to understand, our staff will understand, it's a standard set by the University of Notre Dame defense. They will play to that standard. How hard you play. It's the fundamentals. It's understanding that we're going to challenge each other. We're gonna challenge ourselves. We're going to challenge our opponents. We're going to be aggressive in what we do - understanding that I'm gonna play hard for my unit. I'm gonna play hard for the guys next to me and love the guys in my room. And so that's the things that it's going to take to be successful.

“In terms of schematics, I have certain philosophy on things, but I'm always changing. I'm always changing. One to be able to defend against the crazy offenses that we see. It will be extremely exciting to go against Tommy (Rees) and the offensive staff this spring in terms of what they do offensively.

“Everybody wants to know your three down team or your four down team. Are you a nickel team? It's again,  let's get the best 11. That's my job and that's our job as the deepest staff to figure out the best 11 and then the best 22 and say, ‘OK, are we better to have a four defensive linemen alignment or better to have a nickel on the field? You know? And what are we trying to take away? What are we trying to stop the offense from doing? So there is no perfect answer to that question.

“I'm still figuring out it's been one week - it's been really three days of sitting down with our defensive staff and going through my cut ups, going through some of the previous cut ups and saying, ‘OK, what do we want to put into our package that's going to help us be successful.”

On 2021 CB JoJo Johnson:
”What a great young man. Extremely, extremely talented football player. Did some great things on the football field, great family. I got to know him through the recruitment process and obviously halfway through the year, he reached out to us and said that he was going to decommit.

“He's one of the best players in the country at his position. He's a great athlete and the thing I know is about JoJo is he's a competitor and he's extremely fast. Those are two things we look for. We're looking for how competitive guys are. How athletic guys are, how tough they are, how intelligent they are, what type of leaders they are. There's obviously systematic things that I look for in these young men -  these character traits with these guys. I'm excited to have him here soon and get to work with him.”

On biggest takeaway from recruiting at Notre Dame over the last month:
“You can get any player in the country you want on the phone when we have such a unique brand and a program to sell. In terms of the things I've been telling recruits is that everything you want in any program that’s offered you, you can achieve here plus more. You got a chance to win a National Championship. You look at what Coach Kelly and this football program has done over the past five years, it has been unbelievable to be in the college football playoffs two out of the past three years. There's not many teams that can say that and to be developed into an NFL draft pick, which every kid that we're talking to has these goals.

“You can be developed here better, just as good or better than anywhere else in the country. Coach Kelly's done an unbelievable job. The staff has done an unbelievable job before I got here.

“Now the difference is you got a chance to say you’re a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and that to me is the difference. Yes, you can win a national championship. Yes, you can be developed to be a first-round NFL pick, but now you get to say you're a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, which does things for you after you're done playing football that'll take care of you for the rest of your life.

“I find that extremely enticing. I love being able to develop these relationships and be able to sell that product because to me, it's the best in the country.”

On how to build relationships with top recruits:
“Well, the first thing I do is I sell the University of Notre Dame and what it can do for you as an individual. It's nothing to do with me as a coach. You choose to come to the University of Notre Dame because you want to be a graduate. You want to be a part of what we're doing here and a part of this University.

“Secondly, it's about building relationships. And again, you can't get every kid and you can't have relationships with every recruit in the country, but you try to develop a relationship with the kids that you can. It takes effort. It takes time. It takes getting to know somebody and you can tell through conversations what's authentic and what's not.

“I try as much as I can and have authentic relationships and conversations with these kids. And hopefully, they feel comfortable with me, the staff and Coach Kelly and everybody else. But you choose Notre Dame and like I tell them, don't choose it because of me, your position coach, or anybody else. Choose it because you want to be a part of something that's going to set you up for the rest of your life.

“It’s been fun to be able to sell this product and to be able to talk to these kids. And I know it's going to be extremely rewarding.”

On recruiting philosophy and Mike Elston calling him a tiger on the recruiting trail:
”As far as being a tiger we'll talk about that. My wife is from Massillon, Ohio, so she’s a Massilon Tiger. She might like that. It's about working and recruiting is developing relationships and it's about work. It's a part of our profession where I think it's times you can outwork your opponent.

“That's something that I believe in is that relentless work to get better. Relentless work to get the outcomes that you want and that’s something that we preach to our players. I hope they can see those same traits from the guy saying, ‘Hey, we got to be relentless in what we do in a relentless, in the work we put in.’  

“I want to be just like a player. I want to work to have success and recruiting is a big part of that.

On position terminology:
”I changed it and here's what I believe in, I would much rather put the pressure on myself and the coaches to learn different terminology than the players. They have enough on their plate.

“I'm trying to change as much as I can as far as terminology for those guys. We will call it a Rover. We will call it not a Buck. We’ll call it a Will and that’ll be a little bit different for them. We’re going to keep the names Rover and Vyper.

On process of starting to recruit:
”The first day I was here, Coach Polian had a meeting and we put some guys on film and said, ‘Here’s the guy we’ve offered and let’s evaluate them. I watched them with the position coaches and said where do we rank these guys and how do you feel about them. I want our position coaches to have some ownership in the guys we bring in. Ultimately, those coaches have to coach those players. We have an unbelievable recruiting staff here. They are able to evaluate players and help us in the process in terms of watching guys and make decisions on guys. 

”I kind of sat down with Coach Polian, (Dave) Peloquin and some of those guys. We watched them and got Coach Elston and Coach Mickens on the phone and said let’s start making a plan to have me connect some of these guys. You can’t connect with every single player in the country. You can’t. There just isn’t enough time in the day. 

”We were able to connect with some guys and let’s go. It’s every day. Let’s hit these guys and let’s develop relationships with these guys and continue to make them feel comfortable with who we are and the University.” 

On crossover from Notre Dame and Cincinnati:
”There’s some similarities in terms of what you’re asking guys to do. Our alignments might change. The gap technique might change, but there are some similarities in where you align what you’re asked to do within the scheme. 

“Notre Dame’s defense has been good for many, many years and you have to be a crazy person to come in here and say we’re going to change what you’ve done to have success to be in the College Football Playoffs two out of the last three years. 

“It’s going to be a little bit of that and ultimately all I care about is putting our guys in position to be successful. I’m not going to try to trick. I want to make sure we give our guys the ability to get lined up, play relentlessly, play with the effort that we demand and that we want to see and to let these guys go play. We have some of the best players in the country and that’s what I’m excited about. I have the chance to coach some of the best players in the country because of the way Notre Dame has recruited over the past years. 

“I’m excited to watch these guys go play. My job is to not confuse them. GIve them a chance to get lined up. Give them a chance to get their hand in the ground and give them a chance to play fast.” 

On interview process with Notre Dame:
”I’ll tell you this. After one conversation, I knew Coach Kelly was a good recruiter. It was funny having my wife in his office. I think after the first five minutes, my first question was am I being interviewed, or is my wife being interviewed or recruited, really. He won her over within the first couple minutes and I knew it was a done deal. 

“The chance to come to this staff and to be a part of one of the most elite programs in the country is what really intrigued me. I think you come here and I knew this place was special. What a blessing all these opportunities to be a defensive coordinator at different places, but when myself and my wife went home to sit down and think about what we want for our family and what we want to be part of, there was no decision to be made. 

“To have a chance to be part of Coach Kelly’s staff and this program at the University of Notre Dame is an opportunity you can’t pass up. You just can’t. Every day I’m here I realize more and more why this place is so special. It’s very unique. It’s top of the line in everything we do. That’s not only football, but academics and everything that comes with being a part of Notre Dame.”

On meshing with the staff and his decision to choose Notre Dame:
“The entire staff really got together for this first time this week. We’ve been able to connect at times even when I was here visiting. We were able to connect in early January. A lot of guys were around, but this is an unbelievable staff. Every one of these coaches that I’ve been able to meet, talk to and get to know - they’re great people. I think that’s what Coach Kelly has done. He’s put together a staff of great men that all want to mentor young people, but are competitive and want to win. 

“To me, that answers the same question as to why you choose Notre Dame. It’s so much bigger than just winning and that’s a part of it. That’s my job - to make sure I do the best job I can to put us in position to win. While you do that, you can spend it with people that have the same values as you and care about family and understand everything that comes with life. That’s what attracted me here. To be part of this University, to be a part of the vision they have for the entire campus. It was a no brainer.

“Having a chance to work with Coach Kelly is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” 

On the early success of Cincinnati CB Ahmad Gardner:
”I think more than anything was the job that Coach Mickens did with him. The chance to get back with Coach Mickens, a guy I knew from my high school days, was another big influence on me. Ahmad is a great football player. He’s done some great things at Cincinnati his first two years, but I think the evaluation Coach Mickens did with identifying him early in the process, getting him to commit to Cincinnati and started the development is a big reason why he had so much success early. 

“Coach Mickens does a great job recruiting, great job evaluating and ultimately a great job developing these corners. I look forward to seeing the growth of these young corners, the length they have and what they’re going to be asked to do in our scheme.” 

On Mike Denbrock saying he belonged at Notre Dame during his recruitment:
”I think a lot had to do with how you grow up. My dad’s from Columbus, Ohio. I grew up an Ohio State fan and I was 50 minutes away from there and I had some teammates from my high school already on that team. 

“I think if you took that out of the equation - those already opinions of what I had about Ohio State, I probably would have came to Notre Dame. I really enjoyed Coach Denbrock. We had great conversations and even Coach Willingham, who was the head coach at the time. 

“I don’t think I really gave this place a true fair opportunity. I knew where I wanted to go and I committed there and went there. I think looking back, you realize this place is really, really special. The opportunities that you can gain after being a graduate of Notre Dame - they are opportunities you can’t get everywhere else. 

“I know that now being here that this is an unbelievable, once in a lifetime opportunity, especially for young people trying to figure out where they want to go to school. If you have the opportunity to come to Notre Dame, you better consider it because the things this place will do for your football career, but also for you life are hard to match anywhere else in the country.” 

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