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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 9, 2021
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Maybe when Rockne took them to the Rose Bowl in 1925, Notre Dame was considered cool. Maybe when Leahy won four national championships in the ‘40s or when Ara resurrected the program, people looked at Notre Dame as the place to be.

But for many, many years now, Notre Dame has not been cool. At least not to anyone other than Notre Dame fans.

To the larger college football world, it’s been a football program that has been seen as living off past results. Even when the Irish have been good, and they have been consistently good over the last four years, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge it or there are people rooting for them to lose.

It’s pretty normal for one of the biggest brands in all of sports to be hated by those that don’t love them, but this past week has made me realize something. There are definitely people who are open to embracing Notre Dame, but the previous coach who had been around for a dozen years made that a lot more difficult for many of them.

I wasn’t surprised at all by the reaction of Notre Dame fans when it was announced that Marcus Freeman was the new head coach. I have to say that I was very surprised at the reactions around the country by so many people who would never be considered fans of the program.

A former Heisman winner at USC got “chills” watching the players react to their new coach.

A former Boston College player wanted to run through a wall after hearing Freeman speak.

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt has never been someone who has been openly against Notre Dame or Brian Kelly. He’s had him as a guest on Sportscenter several times. His tweet about the Freeman meeting the team video just felt like the perfect one to share because this has pretty much been the universal response of anyone who has listened to Freeman this week.

 

There’s a lot more to having success at Notre Dame than winning the public relations battle and how Freeman is looked at now could change significantly as times passes, but it says a lot about him that years of disdain or indifference from so many can be flipped around by the hire of a new coach.

The Irish will never be universally loved by everyone. They are still going to be hated by many. But maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of changing the perceptions of a lot of college football fans.

It also could be the start of bringing in some new fans who want to run through a wall when they hear Freeman speak.

2. Marcus Freeman is 35. The guy at LSU is 60. That matters and it’s not to say that someone who is 60 can’t still be a really good coach (a reminder that Nick Saban is 70!). But in terms of what Notre Dame needs, 35 is a lot more preferable to 60.

It really comes down to recruiting and what Freeman said about that is something that most 60-year old coaches don’t want to or don’t have the energy to do.

"I better be the number one recruiter. I better be the lead recruiter in every kid that we recruit. I plan on doing it. We obviously have to depend on our staff and I will depend on our staff to make sure we know who and what and why we are recruiting every individual, but if I'm not the lead recruiter, then we're cheating them."

It’s not just that Freeman is planning on doing this to help take the recruiting up a level. It’s also the fact that most coaches who have been coaching for over three decades aren’t going to change their stripes when this is what is needed.

3. Brian Polian is the first on the field assistant who is headed down to LSU. I think you can read the situation that an opportunity to return in the long term at Notre Dame wasn’t going to be in the cards for him. This wasn’t exactly him being stolen.

Finding a replacement for him is going to be interesting because if you look at most programs around the country, very few have a dedicated special teams coach that doesn’t also coach another position. Where Freeman chooses to go with it could have a lot to do with where he sees someone help the offense or defense with another position coach.

The best bet is that it will be someone with some background on defense to even out the staff with five and five on each side of the ball. That may mean an additional linebacker coach or defensive line coach. I thought about putting out my usual list of potential coaches to fill the vacancy, but it’s a bit more difficult to put together without knowing the direction Freeman is going to head with this.

I know that Marty Biagi, who spent the 2016 season as a special teams analyst in South Bend, is a name that has been thrown out there. He is coaching special teams and outside linebackers currently at Purdue. However, I spoke with a source after that season who knew Biagi and he had a pretty miserable experience in that one year at Notre Dame.

That likely had a lot to do with the disastrous season and that was under a different head coach, but that would give me pause in thinking he’s an obvious candidate.

4. It’s an uneasy time to be a college football coach right now with the carousel spinning faster than ever with the early signing period approaching quickly. That makes me feel bad for enjoying the chaos at this time of year, but I know I’m not alone in getting caught up in it.

It’s an understatement to say that Notre Dame was in the heart of that chaos last week and there will likely be more to come after the bowl game. Notre Dame’s opponents are in the thick of it as well.

Ohio State hired Jim Knowles as their defensive coordinator, which means that Tommy Rees will be matching up with Knowles in the Fiesta Bowl with Oklahoma State and again in the season opener in 2022. USC made a huge splash with hiring Lincoln Riley and that’s going to be interesting to see if he can turn around the biggest rival for the Irish.

The two most interesting developments for me are at Miami and Clemson.

Dabo Swinney is going to have to replace Brent Venables on defense and it looks like Tony Elliott on offense if he ends up landing the Virginia job. Dabo hasn’t had to replace two coordinators since 2011 and that worked famously well for him. It was the spark that ignited their dominant run in the ACC.

This time might be a little different and there are a lot of rumblings about culture issues and Dabo getting too comfortable with hires that he knows rather than hiring the best coaches. With Clemson traveling to Notre Dame again next November and on the schedule again in 2023, who gets hired here and how it works is something that could matter a lot for the Irish in the next two seasons.

The Miami hire of Mario Cristobal is interesting to me because he’s going to recruit better than anyone who was there before him and I feel at the very least he can make them a program that is at the top of their division in the ACC.

The Irish play the Canes again in 2024 and 2025. If Cristobal can get his alma mater headed back closer to what they should be, then those two schedules may end up as tough as the next couple with Texas A&M there in both years as well.

5. When most people think about a defensive minded head coach, they are thinking about being conservative with decision-making. I don’t know if that’s how Freeman is going to be since playing aggressively on defense is part of what he’s about, but that is something I have thought about in regards to how Freeman will approach going for it on 4th down.

Notre Dame finished 98th in 4th down attempts last season so it’s not like they were overly aggressive. We’ll see if that changes under Freeman.

I asked him about analytics back in the summer, which is often a great influence in pushing coaches to make decisions whether to go for it or not on 4th down, and this is what he had to say:

I mean, analytics are as much as you want to utilize them for everything. And how much value are you going to put in analytics to each individual? For me, and I put a lot of value into it, but I also put the most value to what I see. I put the most value and trust in my eyes, but I use the analytics for all of those different scenarios to help me make a confident decision.
Do my eyes match up with what the analytics say? And when they're completely off, do we need to talk about it (and maybe) reevaluate some things. But a lot of times you use it, it's just confirmation. And we have analytics for everything. It's just how much value do you put into each thing? I don't believe you can just blindly say, okay, let me give you analytics.
So there's a lot of analytics out there and I'm trying to find ways to utilize it more. I don't think I've used it enough and I want to utilize it more because if you understand what they're trying to tell you, I think they can be very helpful.

That makes it seem pretty clear that he’s not going to be a coach who puts his blind faith in the analytics telling him to go for it, but he’ll also try to use it as a resource to help guide what he does.

I’m excited to see how Freeman approaches things when it’s 4th and 2 inside the Oklahoma State 40-yard line. I have a feeling that if Tommy Rees is able to have a lot of input with it, he’ll want to go for it more times than not.

6. Things will start to get more focused on Oklahoma State after the early signing period next week, but what I can’t stop thinking about with this game is the balance of finishing off the season right and the need to build on things for next year.

Balance is the right word for it, I think. It can’t go too far in one direction because both matter.

The idea that Blake Fisher or Tyler Buchner should start when it could very well be the last college football game for the guys they would be replacing is an example of how things can get too far with the idea of playing for the future. If it gives Notre Dame the best chance to win, then so be it. If you’re thinking that these guys need to get ready for Ohio State next year, then that is so far off the mark that I don’t even know where to begin.

I know that there won’t be a single fan watching who doesn’t want to see young players shine so that can add to their excitement about next season. I also know that those same fans don’t want to hear another word about Notre Dame losing a BCS/CFP/NY6 bowl again. And everyone wants to see Freeman come out with a win in his first game.

It would be exciting to see many of the young players who made an impact in the second half of the season ball out against Oklahoma State...as long as that comes during an Irish victory. 12-1 would feel a lot better than 11-2 so hopefully the team can finish off the season the right way to get Irish fans excited about 2022.

 
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