Freeman ready to turn Year 1 lessons into actions
Andrew McGuinness | Friday, August 25, 2023
During fall camp, head coach Marcus Freeman and the new-look coaching staff met with athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Swarbrick has overseen 10 national champions in 15 years as the University’s athletic director, the most in Notre Dame’s illustrious history. He knows what a championship-caliber team looks and feels like — and what it doesn’t. The meeting’s message resonated so much with the head coach that he asked Swarbrick to deliver it to his players.
But after Swarbrick finished talking, Freeman made sure his team took away the right things from it. No matter how much Notre Dame improves from its rollercoaster 9-4 inaugural season under Freeman, it cannot win the national championship in September. Heck, it can’t even beat Navy until the ball is kicked off at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday night. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been anything at stake in the time between then and the final whistle of Notre Dame’s Dec. 30 Gator Bowl victory.
“I reminded the guys that’s the result of a lot of different things,” Freeman said. “Don’t worry about Saturday. Focus on today. You are in a competition versus your opponent. We’re both practicing today. So who’s gonna win today?”
Notre Dame will ultimately be judged by who wins on 12 of the next 14 Saturdays and, the Irish hope, beyond. Freeman knows this. His first year leading the Irish was not without its triumphs. The Irish pulled themselves off the mat after suffering a second potentially season-shaking loss to Stanford on Oct. 15. A disappointing 3-3 start gave way to a 6-1 burst that was highlighted by a blowout win over No. 4 Clemson.
That turnaround is evidence that Freeman isn’t the same person or coach that he was when he took the job from Brian Kelly. A moment when he switched from hotshot defensive coordinator to being tasked with maintaining the stability the Irish rediscovered in the 2010s. But it also isn’t enough on its own to get the Irish to where they want to be — even if that isn’t their focus right now.
“If there’s a better way to do it, and somebody can it explain it to me in a way that makes sense and I understand it and I agree with it — let’s do it,” Freeman said. “It’s a part of growth. Sometimes that’s what prevents people from growing. I need to be able to grow. I don’t have every answer… I was able to adapt (last season) and adjust myself as a leader. I just wanna do what’s best for the players.”
What’s best may vary for different players and in different situations. Freeman may no longer be a new face in South Bend, but there are a lot of them at the forefront of the 117th season of Irish football. Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman is the obvious one. But from redshirts to true freshmen to graduate transfers and even to the coaching staff, Freeman noted Monday that the Irish will be counting on a lot of new faces in 2023.
That type of development may have been intimidating a year ago when Freeman was still learning the ropes. But it’s clear that Freeman’s “challenge everything” mentality is making inroads in all areas of the program. It’s not just a way to make a daunting schedule that includes three preseason top-10 opponents (Ohio State, USC, Clemson) seem like a positive. It’s taking advantage of every possible opportunity to maximize Notre Dame’s chances of success.
That may show up in finding a role for sophomore Jaylen Sneed in an experienced, talented linebacker group. “We will find ways to get him on the field because he makes us better when he’s on the field,” Freeman said.
It may show up in giving space for new offensive coordinator Gerad Parker to develop, rather than over-managing.
“I’ve been really pleased with the growth of him as a leader of a staff, him as a leader of the offense,” Freeman said. “His players truly buy into who he is as a leader. That’s to me the reflection of a great leader.”
It may simply mean creating an “environment of leadership,” a phrase Freeman used to describe the culture of the roster.
Even with a new staff and plenty of new faces, the Irish aren’t short on leaders. Freeman noted that 10 players received at least 10 votes to be named a team captain and that even a fresh staff isn’t backing down from making their presence felt in the right way.
“Our coaching staff did a great of promoting leadership, helping to build leadership. All of our seniors spoke to the team about some of the lessons they’ve learned over their time here,” Freeman said.
Freeman’s growth is already showing dividends. Through internal overview and looking outside, Freeman said the team dramatically reduced its injury rate across the board this fall compared to last. And he’s not just learning from his own mistakes but from those of others as well. The last time Notre Dame went to Ireland in 2012, they returned the night of the game and came out sluggish against a middling Purdue team the following weekend. This time, the Irish will stay the night and fly home Sunday before prepping for their home opener against Tennessee State, a somewhat similar trap game to last September’s loss against Marshall.
The beginning of Freeman’s tenure seems both so far away but still so near. There may not be as much national hype around him as there was some 700 days ago when he burst into the locker to thunderous applause and a borderline mosh pit of Irish players. But that doesn’t mean confidence in the team’s leader is dwindling from anyone in South Bend — including himself.
“Time flies, man,” Freeman said. “It’s a great reminder to enjoy this opportunity for all of us.”
Fans are ready for another season of Notre Dame football. Freeman has the tools and, now, the experience to lead it.