Notre Dame is expected to promote defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to replace the departed Brian Kelly as the next head coach of the Fighting Irish, sources tell CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. Freeman, 35, will take over the program less than one season after joining Notre Dame from Cincinnati. The deal is not yet official.
Maintaining continuity during a period of tremendous success is a priority, especially since Notre Dame has a potential College Football Playoff team, according to Dodd.
Freeman’s elevation comes with the program also retaining offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. A former Irish quarterback under Kelly from 2010-13, Rees was reportedly courted to join Kelly at LSU. Retaining Rees to lead the offense was believed to be a key for Notre Dame if it decided to promote Freeman from within.
Rees announced his decision to stay with the Irish at a team meeting Wednesday night.
Though Freeman will become one of the youngest head coaches in Notre Dame history, he has dramatically impacted the program since arriving before the start of the season. The Irish held their final four opponents to a combined 23 points, and the program is also putting the finishing touches on its first top-five class since 2013 thanks in large part to Freeman’s leadership on the recruiting trail.
Prior to Notre Dame, Freeman served as defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, where he helped grow the Bearcats into the College Football Playoff contender they are today. He was a player at Ohio State and was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Freeman has been the clear clubhouse leader for the job among players. Following Kelly’s shocking departure for LSU, players and Notre Dame recruits began a public campaign for Freeman to get the job using the hashtag #FreemanEra on Twitter.
Notre Dame went 11-1 and sits at No. 6 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings as the regular season comes to a close. With a few upsets, the Irish could be back in the playoff for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. Notre Dame has a 44-6 record over the past four seasons.
Notre Dame goes young
Few coaches on a national level hired better than Kelly, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator before Freeman, is now the head coach at Vanderbilt. However, 35-year-old Freeman and 29-year-old Rees are the new faces of Notre Dame football.
Rees — a former Irish quarterback — was named quarterbacks coach in 2017, right after Notre Dame’s unlikely 4-8 campaign. The Fighting Irish have won 10 games each of the last five seasons and finished in the top 12 every year (pending 2021). Quarterbacks Ian Book and Jack Coan have provided the Irish with the best quarterback play of the Kelly era. Keeping him in the fold when he could have left for LSU is quite a message on the recruiting trail.
Notre Dame is one of — if not the most — tradition rich programs in America. Freeman and Rees fit the mold of coaches who will bring both youthful energy and a deep respect and understanding of what Notre Dame stands for. It’s rare to find that combination.
Freeman has the golden touch
Almost everywhere Freeman has coached has improved dramatically. After a 4-8 season in 2016 at Cincinnati, the Bears went 31-6 over his final three seasons. After the Fighting Irish went 10-2 in 2020, they jumped to 11-1 with Freeman doing an excellent job with the defense despite having lost key production.
Now, Freeman will try and reshape a Notre Dame program that has won near — but not at — the highest level over the past decade. Since Freeman took over the program, Notre Dame has been far more aggressive on the recruiting trail. Expect that to continue. If the public displays of support are any indication, players and recruits love him.
Bucking the trend
Several key college football programs have opted for promotions to build on success, including Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, Ryan Day at Ohio State and Dabo Swinney at Clemson. However, Charlie Weis, Bob Davie and Gerry Faust are the last three first-time head coaches to lead Notre Dame, and all struggled in their own ways.
Freeman is ready to be a head coach after such success, but Notre Dame is one of the biggest jobs in America. The speed at which he is able to adjust to the pressure and expectations of the corner office in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex will define his coaching career. Don’t bet against him. Having the backing of highly-regarded athletic director Jack Swarbrick will help.
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