Marcus Freeman paused a moment before answering. This was another good sign.
Notre Dame’s third defensive coordinator in five seasons may have been the prize acquisition of the offseason coaching carousel. At 35, the Broyles Award finalist is a rising star in the profession.
Yet, the former Ohio State linebacker and Cincinnati defensive guru is not ego-driven in any way. He made that clear this week as he answered a question about South Bend predecessors Clark Lea and Mike Elko.
“I want to make sure I say this the right way,” Freeman said on a recent Zoom call with reporters. “What Clark Lea and Mike Elko did before I got in this chair was unbelievable. They set a standard for Notre Dame defense. It was my job to come in here and uphold that standard.”
Lea returned to Vanderbilt, his alma mater, as head coach in December after leading Irish defenses that finished between 12th and 14th nationally in scoring defense during his three seasons at the helm.
Before that, Elko parlayed a 2017 turnaround to 31st nationally in that category into a fat contract to run defense for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.
Now it’s Freeman’s turn to help take Brian Kelly’s program to the next level. After two losses in the past three College Football Playoff semifinals, there’s really only one goal left: the program’s first national championship since 1988.
Toward that end, Freeman will make some changes, but they won’t be drastic.
“We might do things a little bit differently in terms of the overall scheme,” he said. “We might pressure a little more, we might move a little bit more. That doesn’t mean that this scheme is better than that scheme or anything else. That just means it’s a different way of actually playing defense.”
Since arriving in January, Freeman has made it clear to his new pupils that they are already on the right track. The four main principles he’s looking for — effort/attitude, ability to get off blocks, ability to tackle and ball disruption — are already right there on film from Notre Dame’s 2020 season.
“The first unit meeting we had, I showed them: ‘Here’s what I view as successful defense,’ “ Freeman said. “All I showed them was plays they’ve already done, these different fundamentals they’ve already displayed.”
It wasn’t a montage of defensive highlights from Cincinnati, where Freeman took the Bearcats’ scoring defense from 93rd nationally in his first year (2017) to eighth nationally in two of the past three years.
He’s not looking to be the Rainmaker. That would be off-putting to such an accomplished group.
Instead, Freeman just wants the Irish to hone those preexisting traits into an unbending wall of excellence.
“Those four things are why we’ll have success,” Freeman said. “I make sure they understand every time I stand in front of the room: ‘It’s not because of any scheme that I’ve brought here. It’s because of the way we play.’ That’s why we’re going to have success.”