Notre Dame didn’t have to look far or for long in its search to replace Brian Kelly as head coach, as defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was promoted to the top spot on Friday. Freeman will become the head coach immediately and direct the program for the bowl season. The former Ohio State linebacker joined the program prior to 2021 and directed the defense to a place among the best in college football after working at Cincinnati for four years. The job in South Bend will be Freeman's first as an FBS head coach.
Promoting Freeman to head coach was the right call for a program that’s won at least 10 games in each of the last five years. While a first-time head coach carries some risk, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Notre Dame is making the right call with an internal promotion.
Here are five reasons why this is the right move for Notre Dame:
Notre Dame Football: 5 Reasons Why Marcus Freeman is the Right Pick as Head Coach
1. Freeman is a Rising Star
Freeman is young (35), and takes over a pressure-packed situation at an elite job in Notre Dame. While there are risks to promoting an unproven coach at a place like South Bend, it’s a gamble the program should (and had to) take. The Ohio native’s coaching career started as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010 and quickly progressed with stops at Kent State, Purdue and Cincinnati before going to Notre Dame prior to the 2021 season. Freeman helped both the Bearcats and Fighting Irish rank among the best in the nation on defense and all signs as an assistant point to the former Buckeye being ready to be a head coach. There may be a few bumps in the road as a young coach, but if Notre Dame didn’t hire Freeman, another program was going to in the very near future. Simply, the program couldn’t let a rising star like Freeman leave South Bend.
Notre Dame has won at least 10 games in each of its last five seasons, so this isn’t a situation to find a new (or experienced) coach who can make major changes or fix a broken program. The Fighting Irish have become a staple in the top 10 in recent years and earned two playoff trips over the last four seasons. Wholesale changes aren’t needed in South Bend. Instead, Freeman can put his own tweaks and build on a foundation already in place for a top-10 program (and a team that should be very good in '22).
3. Keeping Good Coaches in South Bend
Hiring a staff as a first-time coach is always challenging but promoting Freeman allowed Notre Dame to retain key assistants. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees won’t follow Kelly to LSU and will continue to call plays. Also, director of football performance Matt Balis – a key cog in the program’s turnaround after 2016 – is sticking around. Key assistant and defensive line coach Mike Elston is expected to remain in South Bend, and other members of the ’21 staff could return next year.
Freeman will have to address some assistant positions, but there’s a good chance the bulk of this staff returns for ’22. With a strong group of lieutenants in place, Freeman is set up for success.
According to Athlon's roster rankings, Notre Dame averaged a 12.4 finish in recruiting from 2017-21. The No. 9 class from ’21 was the program’s highest under that five-year window. That was Freeman’s first class with the Fighting Irish. Coincidence? As of Friday, Dec. 3, Notre Dame ranks No. 5 in the ’22 rankings with 17 four or five-star prospects. Freeman’s ability to recruit is a big reason why the program has moved up the recruiting rankings and should continue to upgrade the amount of blue-chip prospects coming to South Bend.
5. The Culture and the Players
As mentioned above, this is a strong program with a good culture that Freeman won’t have to make a ton of changes to this spring. How bad did the players want Freeman to be their next head coach? This video says it all:
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