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Notre Dame Football

More on Freeman's Philosophy

March 29, 2021

Part of how Marcus Freeman will be evaluated as a defensive coordinator at Notre Dame will be how his defense compares to Clark Lea’s. That always happens in coaching when a new guy comes in and replaces a coach who was successful before him.

We won’t know just how good Freeman’s defense will be for a long time and he’s inherited a unit that has lost two ends who will be selected in the NFL Draft, a Butkus Award winning linebacker, and two starters in the secondary. So how good they can be and who is going to step up and replace those players is still up in the air, but we already know that Freeman is going to be a bit different than Lea.

Bo Bauer and Paul Moala were asked about those differences. Bauer specifically highlighted how it was “sometimes difficult to play with your natural instincts”. Moala mentioned it’s “less scheme and more football.”

I don’t believe either were trying to be critical of Lea. Those are honest answers and gave great insight as to how the two coaches differ slightly in how they approach coaching their units. Lea’s defense was clearly successful at Notre Dame. At the same time, we may see certain individuals perform better under Freeman because of his philosophy.

Freeman was asked on the Make Defense Great Again podcast about allowing his players to play simple and fast while still making it complex for an offense to figure out. His answer, unsurprisingly after seeing results from his first few months on the job, came back to recruiting.

“That’s my philosophy. Different coordinators, different coaches, have different philosophies...and that’s just mine. We’re going to recruit really well. I’m going to try and outwork you in recruiting, so that over time, we step on the field and have an advantage. That’s a belief of mine. We’re going to out-recruit the guys we are going against.
“Let’s out-recruit them, one, because to me, you can have a distinct advantage when you step on the field. But two, and I want to say this the right way, I’m not trying to beat you in a chess match. That’s not my philosophy. I believe that we have to be multiple, but we’re going to do what we do in terms of our kids are not going to be confused. They are going to get good at the things we ask them to do.”

The recruiting part of it is obviously part of a long term vision for how to build a defense, but Freeman spoke more pointedly about how his philosophy works with practice. He expanded on how being simple with alignments allowing his players to think less also allowed coaches to emphasize fundamentals.

“Now, we have enough defense in that (the offense) won’t always know this is what we’re going to be in. Our kids are going to know what to do and they are going to know how to do it so we can spend time on making sure we can coach the heck out of fundamentals. I think people say all the time, but do they really practice that? Do you really stress them or is it something you put on your resume that fundamentals matter?”

Anyone who has watched the recent Cincinnati defenses knows that they must matter a lot to Freeman. It also ties into how he views playing hard and toughness, something that many would not view as fundamentals.

He disagrees.

“Playing hard and playing physical is a fundamental that can be taught, that can be improved on. People say, “You can’t get this guy to be more physical.” Yeah, you can. You can work on it. You’ve got to find different ways to help that kid improve being physical in block destruction, in tackling, in ball disruption and those things are fundamentals of defense that we really work and we can do that because we don’t spend an enormous amount of time on this route we match this coverage this way and this coverage we match that route this way. No, let’s get good at what we do. As long as it’s enough, get good at what we do.”

This kind of thing can really translate well for certain players and it will be interesting to see which ones, specifically at linebacker and in the secondary, can make more of an impact with the focus on defense shifting slightly. We may see some players who weren’t projected to be significant contributors rise up the depth chart by the end of spring ball because of this.

No one can argue against the results Lea had. His defenses were strong fundamentally and rarely made mental mistakes. His unit, specifically with coverages, may have been more complex, but he and the staff were able to teach it well or else they wouldn’t have been so good on defense.

We’ll see if the change with Freeman makes a big difference this year and in the future. A lot of how good the defense will be is going to depend on the personnel and how they are utilized. He talked about that the very first time he spoke with the Notre Dame media on signing day.

“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.”

He’s going to learn a lot about his best 11 and 22 over the next month. When he figures that part out, it should be fun to see how those players take to Freeman’s philosophy this season.

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