Only four teams scored more than 21 points against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense in 2020. Led by defensive coordinator Clark Lea, the Irish held opponents to just 19.7 points, 113.0 rushing yards, and 343.6 total yards per game.
Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator for the 2021 campaign outperformed all three of those metrics last season.
When Lea accepted an offer in mid-December to be the next head coach at Vanderbilt, Notre Dame wasted no time finding his successor. Less than a month later, Brian Kelly had found his man.
Marcus Freeman joins Notre Dame — which he picked over LSU — fresh off a campaign in which his Cincinnati defense finished third in the FBS in interceptions (16), eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points allowed per game), 10th in total takeaways (21), and 14th in rushing defense (111.1 rushing yards allowed per game). Among teams that played at least 10 games in the 2020 season, Freeman's Bearcats posted the fourth-best scoring defense and eighth-best per-game averages in both rushing and total defense.
"As we looked into finding someone to run our defense, it was important to find the right fit for our program, and Marcus and his family are just that," Kelly said when Freeman's hiring was announced last week. "Marcus was our top choice to become our next defensive coordinator, and we are pleased he and his family will be joining us at Notre Dame."
Just like his predecessor Lea, Freeman also enjoyed a successful collegiate career on the field, playing 51 games (37 starts) as a linebacker at Ohio State — with two Fiesta Bowl appearances and two BCS National Championship appearances — and a pair of second-team All-Big Ten selections.
The similarities don't end there, however. Both were named among the 15 semifinalists — from an original list of 56 nominated coaches — for the Broyles Award, the prestigious prize awarded to college football's top assistant coach. Freeman was one of just five named finalists before Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — who recently accepted the head coaching job at Texas — ultimately came away with the award.
Upon hiring Freeman in 2017, Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell — who coached Freeman at Ohio State before the two coached together in Columbus in 2010 — said of Freeman and then-newly hired special teams coordinator Doug Phillips: "When I talked to our team on the day I was hired, I promised them I would hire an outstanding staff who were not only great motivators and teachers of football but also great men off the field," Fickell said. "Marcus and Doug are the first two steps in making that promise a reality."
Fickell also pointed to Freeman's recruiting pedigree at the time of the latter's hire, a key emphasis in Kelly's praise of his new defensive coordinator.
According to 247Sports, the Bearcats have posted the top recruiting class in the AAC in each of the last two cycles, and three classes ranked in the top-50 nationally in the last four cycles after notching just one in the 10 previous cycles. Cincinnati edged out Memphis in both years, boosted by three four-star recruits signed to its 2020 class — and two of the top-six prospects in Ohio — including linebacker Jaheim Thomas, a top-25 recruit at the linebacker position.
"He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers," Kelly said. "Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks. The work Marcus has done elevating the programs he has been a part of speaks for itself, but equally as important is the exceptional work he has done in building relationships with his staff and players."
As Freeman takes the reins of a talented defense needing to reload after losing five starters to the NFL, expectations are that his presence will undoubtedly be a factor in continuing the unit's success, both on the field and in recruiting.
"We're going to try to find the best players we can find that fit our culture and our brand," Freeman said in December about Cincinnati's continued quest to earn respect in recruiting and on the field.
If those words and mission carry into his new role with Notre Dame, as many expect that they will, then championship contention — not just respect — will be the aspiration of Freeman's players, colleagues, and Irish fans alike.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NDFootball)