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Notre Dame Football

Freeman Talks Scheme and Philosophy

March 22, 2021
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Marcus Freeman hasn’t called the defense yet for Notre Dame. He hasn’t coached one spring practice. Despite that, he has found a way to make a significant impact as a recruiter.

His work on top of what recruiting coordinator Mike Elston and the rest of the staff have done in recent weeks has created a buzz around the program that hasn’t been typical for this time of year. All of that excitement is great, but eventually Notre Dame is going to have to play ball and there’s a lot of curiosity about what that will look like on defense under Freeman.

We know he has the track record of success at Cincinnati. Three straight years in the top-17 in FEI, three straight top-20 finishes in Havoc Rate, and the last two years in the top-10 in red zone touchdown percentage are right up there with any defensive coordinator in college football the last few years.

What we don’t know is how things are going to work with Notre Dame’s personnel. This group of defenders has different strengths than those Cincinnati defenses, so however it looks, it will be different.

Freeman was a guest on the most recent Make Defense Great Again podcast and came on to specifically talk about his “Dollar” personnel package (3-3-5) he ran at Cincinnati with the host, Coach Vass.

This isn’t a podcast that is made for fans. It’s specifically aimed at coaches and the conversation is heavy on topics like adjusting to formations, alignments, and techniques. So if you’re looking at listening to it and thinking there will be a ton of insight on how “Dollar” will translate to Notre Dame’s personnel, that’s not what it was about.

That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of information shared that gave insight into Freeman as a coach. It was plenty informative from that perspective and I pulled a few quotes that highlight some of his philosophy.

(For more on Freeman’s defense, check out this deeper dive I did on January 11.)

Adapts to his personnel

Back in January, I wrote this about Freeman after watching several games of his defense at Cincinnati.

Freeman isn’t a “this is who we are” running the same thing over and over again type of coordinator. Those guys are dinosaurs. He adapts from week to week, which will be critical against the schedule Notre Dame will face.

That was about him changing from week to week, but this podcast gave greater insight as to how he adapts his defense with changing personnel.

Any good coach is going to adapt to the talent he has on his roster and Freeman is no exception. He used a specific example when describing utilizing his inside linebackers to “plug”.

(Plugging is exactly what one would assume it is. It’s essentially filling a gap. Rather than reading and flowing to the ball, it’s assigning that gap to a linebacker on a blitz.)

“I don’t want to say that all we’re looking for is big backers,” when asked about the type of linebackers Freeman wants in the Dollar package. “If you look at what we did two years ago, we had a big Mike that was a former end. We had a smaller Will that was really productive. To me, it’s what you’re to ask those guys to do. We didn’t ask that small Will backer two years ago to plug much because it wasn’t something that he did well.
“I’m a little bit different in terms of like where I don’t want to try and screw around and try and plug a square peg into a round hole. What I mean by that is, let’s do what they do best. If I’ve got a Mike backer that is a better plugger, then I’m going to plug the Mike the majority of the time.
“Let’s tweak our system to the positive traits that all of the positions have.”

The simple thing to do is look at Notre Dame’s linebackers compared to Cincinnati’s last season and think that Freeman would want bigger guys playing there. That’s not necessarily the case, though, even when Freeman chooses to play Dollar.

One of the reasons why he’s not just a one year wonder is that he has tweaked the defense depending on who his best players are. He had a different kind of linebacker in 2019 and talked about how teaching him how to plug was different than others.

“This is going to go back to what they do well,” Freeman said. “Two years ago we had a guy, #11, in Bryan Wright, who had a great feel for blitzing. I believe blitzing is about two things: timing and aiming point. And he just had a feel for how to time things up.
“So if you pulled a guy when he was plugging, a lot of times, nine out of 10 times, he’ll make a play in the backfield. Whereas last year they were more good at using their hands and not as good at timing it up. Well that’s what we did.”

Wright had 13.5 tackles for loss in ‘19.

It’s not difficult to envision some of Notre Dame linebackers having success because of their ability to time up the blitz. That’s something that Drew White and Marist Liufau have shown they can do well. Bo Bauer also proved last season that he can be an effective blitzer in the sub-package for Clark Lea. Freeman won’t be without options to choose from at inside linebacker.

Freeman continued:

“If there is a guy who just wanted to blow stuff up, we’d tell him to blow stuff up and get penetration.”

Looking at it from that perspective, there may not be another player who is capable of attacking downhill and blowing things up better than Jordan Botelho. He’s a Vyper at Notre Dame, but he’s a potential successor to Daelin Hayes in that stand up role on 3rd downs where he would often line up over a guard.

I expect to see Dollar be the primary 3rd down package for Notre Dame this season and Botelho blowing up things from the interior makes a lot of sense.

The scheme discussion on the podcast was all about Dollar. As I just mentioned, it’s my belief that it will be more of a sub-package look for Notre Dame than the base defense mostly because of the personnel the Irish have compared to Cincinnati.

However, I do think there could be games where Dollar is the main defense we see from Freeman.

USC and their Air Raid scheme seems like an inevitable Dollar game. North Carolina and Florida State, both programs that rely heavily on RPOs, are two other games where I expect to see Dollar more. Purdue is the other matchup that jumps out from the rest. They have finished top-six in passing percentage the last three years. They are a “sling it around” team under Jeff Brohm and are much closer to an AAC opponent than a traditional Big Ten program.

We’ll have to wait and see how Freeman approaches each individual game plan, but what he said about teaching technique to his linebackers when plugging was interesting to me. It’s a game plan thing and personnel specific thing for him as a coach and it’s yet another example of why he was so successful at Cincinnati. He adapts to not just his players, but the opponent.

“Our base rules are, let’s use our hands,” emphasized Freeman. “Are we a plug team where the guard or the tackle or the center comes to us and we want to cross his face? Or do we say, we’re going to stay in the A or the B gap no matter what. Those are all game plan things.”

Listening to Freeman talk about his scheme and philosophy during the podcast made me even more confident that he will succeed much like Lea did at Notre Dame. And even during a conversation that was all about ball, he mentioned the importance of recruiting.

Every Notre Dame fan who has followed things closely already knows what Freeman is all about in that department.

Coach Vass closed the podcast with a 4th and 9 scenario to win the game where he asked Freeman about what his call would be in that situation. Without hesitation, Freeman said it would be man pressure. His reasoning shows exactly why this is a coach that recruits are excited about playing from.

“I would hope that our players would look at me in that situation if I called drop eight, they would call a timeout and say “No, coach”. Because you get in front of the room and say we’re an aggressive attacking unit and when the game is on the line we don’t say what we’re going to do, then that’s an oxymoron.
“I’m going to get in front of the room everyday and talk about how aggressive and challenging we’re going to be and we’re going to revert back to our culture and revert back to what makes us successful.”

We know that film doesn’t lie and the film showed that Freeman runs an aggressive defense that adapts to his personnel and opponent. This conversation gave us greater insight into that and gave us a bit of a preview of what we can expect from Freeman’s defense at Notre Dame.

 
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