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Notre Dame Football

Marcus Freeman on Adapting as a Coordinator and More

July 23, 2021
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College football is forever changing both on and off the field. Coaches have always had to adapt and adjust, but the game has evolved faster than ever in recent years. Programs need coaches who can keep up.

New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is doing more than keeping up. He’s been ahead of the game as a recruiter since taking the job. He’ll have a host of new challenges to deal with once the team takes the field this fall, though.

ISD spoke to him earlier this week and he shared insights on how he approaches teaching with the evolution of offense in college football, how he’s been looking at the bigger picture from the start of his coaching career, and more.

On teaching the linebacker position and how it has changed since he was playing for Ohio State:

Freeman: I think every year you kind of go back and you evaluate how you're teaching. You evaluate, is there a better way to teach? That's probably one of the most important things a coach is...how do we teach? Is our teaching progression...is it clear? Is it the most up-to-date? And I think that's something I take a lot of pride in.

Like I remember when I first started coaching, it was straight how I was coached. This is what I was taught to do. Hey guys, do it the way, that way. Then you go to different clinics...I mean, I'm always trying to learn how to become a better coach. I love sitting on Zooms in clinics and hearing people speak because there can be another way to do it, you know? And so I really, really take pride in that.

And yeah, like you said, the games continuously enhancing, right. It's continuously evolving. And so if you're not evolving as a coach, if you're not involved in the way you teach, then you're going to get passed by. And so that's a huge challenge for me personally, but also for our entire staff.

On when he started to think like a coordinator and how he knew he had to adapt what he was doing after his first year at Cincinnati:

Freeman: For me, I've always tried to think one step ahead. And so when I was a GA at Ohio State and I coached the Vyper position, I was always thinking, how would you coach all four D-linemen? Or how would you coach or teach the linebackers? Now, your job is to be the best Vyper coach in the country and you can always continue to learn and develop. So when I became the linebackers coach at Kent State and the linebackers coach at Purdue, I always tried to think as, how do I become the best linebackers coach at Purdue, but also, how am I continuing to evolve as a coordinator?

Well you write down things, you go to clinics, you listen, you kind of evolve things, but I don't ever feel like you're a hundred percent prepared until you're in the moment. And that's when you do most of your learning is you got to do it by trial by fire, you know what I mean?

And so you think you're ready to be the defensive coordinator at University of Cincinnati at 30 years old and we finished off the first year at 93rd in the country in scoring defense. And so very quickly I learned that, hey, you're not the dude. You better revamp and re-think about what it takes to be successful. And so we were able to change and that's what you were kind of asking earlier.

It's like, do you say, no, this is the way we're doing things. Do we stay the course? We're not going to change and then you say, okay, we've finished 96th in the country. We need to evaluate what we're doing. And we need to kind of change some things or you're going to be fired anyway.

And so we were able to make those changes. And all of a sudden, the next year you've moved to eighth in the country in scoring defense. We obviously had some success in the next three years.

I'm not saying take away (from the job you currently have). So right now, I’m the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. You always think about how can I be the best defensive coordinator, best linebackers coach, but also sometimes if you're the head coach, like what decisions would you make or how would you do it? If you're ever in that position, like, what would you do? And then those are different ways. I think that can help prepare you to take the next step although your number one goal is to be the best in the position you’re currently in.

On what forced the introduction of the “Dollar” scheme at Cincinnati and why it’s about getting the best players on the field:

Freeman: Basically it all started with 2019. So in 2018, we played UCF. We were undefeated I think at the time and they were undefeated and they beat us bad. And I remember saying we have to have a better plan for UCF. So we kind of developed this little 3-3-5, but really it was just for UCF.

And then all of a sudden, 2019, going into the season, we lose our best safety, our field safety, that was a cover guy that did a great job. We lose him to start the season. We got away with playing our base defense versus UCLA who was a 12, 21 big personnel team. We played base defense. Then we played Ohio State, did what we did and they beat the heck out of us, but we thought like more so it was just because they were that much better than us in 2019, than maybe it was the scheme. Then we played Marshall and we got after them defensively playing base defense and then I think the next game was UCF when we came up with this 3-3-5.

Well, it worked really, really well for us versus UCF, they didn't know that we were going to do it, had success, and then the next week, I think we had to get ready to play Houston. Houston was the first team that kind of gave us some issues with that field safety position. And so we had to make a quick change. And I remember at halftime saying, talking to the defensive staff saying, “Hey, we've got a close game, we just used it last week, I know we haven't practiced it much, but we have to play some “Dollar”. We have try to put a nickel on the field to try and cover the field to cover the field side instead of that field safety”.

And so that was kind of the evolution of now all of a sudden that was your go-to when you couldn't stop somebody with base defense, you went to “Dollar”. Then you used it more and more and more throughout the rest of the season. In 2020, we kind of committed to it because that was what we kind of recruited to and that was the strength of our defense.

That's to tell you it isn't as much enhanced or coming up with this crazy scheme. It's more so, okay. “Who are your best players? How do we get them on the field? And how can we create a defense that takes away what the offense is trying to do?” It isn't about, this is the defense we're going to have. You have to get three linebackers, three D-line and five DBs. No, it's what are they trying to do? And how do we stop this with the best players on the field?

If we're playing a team that is a 22 personnel team, we're not taking Kyle Hamilton off the field, you know what I mean? When they got all these big people, you should just put more linebackers. No, because he's one of our best players. So let's keep the best players on the field, but try to put them in positions where we can be successful to take away what the offense is trying to do.

On if it’s always going to be about personnel or if there will be a shift to recruiting to the scheme he wants to run:

Freeman: I think that the number changes every year. When I came in this past year to Notre Dame we said, we're going to take...we need this many D-linemen, this many linebackers, this many DBs...and so we said, okay, we're going to take blank D-linemen, blank linebackers, blank safeties. Now within those numbers, go get the best players in the country, right? Go get the best players in the country.

And then towards the end of the class, we’ve got to have difficult conversations. Well, we said we need this many D-linemen and this many DBs, but we got the number one DB or the number one D-lineman in the country that wants to come, that's going to make your program different. Well, he has to take a number. So let's take this extra D-lineman and that means we're not going to take a DB. Now, my job as a coordinator is to say we got more D-linemen than we have DBs, now can we make this scheme work with more D-linemen because they are better players.

So then as you move forward, so say next year we will become a “Dollar” team. We got five DBs on the field and our best players are DBs. Well, let's keep recruiting that. Let’s get five DBs and three D-linemen because this is what fits us right now. But if all of a sudden you're going to get a better D-lineman than you would a DB, then let's take the D-lineman. And then all of a sudden you're going back to a 4-3-4.

So it's forever changing, but I think what you can't do is that you can't say, hey, these are the hard numbers we've got to take. I think the numbers have to be able to float with the positions because the value of that player can trump the number. Let's make sure we get the most valuable player we can find and then we can figure out our scheme around them.

***

Part two will run Monday with Freeman’s thoughts on how comfortable he is with where the defense is at after the spring, thoughts on some specific players, the competition he is hoping to have at each position, and more.

 
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