football Edit

A strong football culture not only tolerates change, it can thrive with it

The coaching carousel this offseason has become more like a Tilt-A-Whirl — dizzying, sometimes nauseating and seemingly interminable.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean a steeper learning curve for 36-year-old Marcus Freeman in his first go-round as Notre Dame’s head football coach. Not if he can hire like he can recruit.

And he’s certainly getting plenty of practice.

On Sunday, Notre Dame tight ends coach John McNulty emerged as the leading candidate to replace Frank Cignetti Jr. as Boston College’s offensive coordinator, and by Monday the deal was done.

ESPN first reported Boston College's interest in McNulty. On3 first reported McNulty's departure. Inside ND Sports and Eagle Action confirmed the completion of the deal through sources.

McNulty acknowledged his departure Monday afternoon on Twitter. Boston College, whose offense features former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec, will play at Notre Dame on Nov. 19.

That means Freeman will be shopping for assistant No. 7 since he replaced Irish all-time wins leader Brian Kelly after the latter bolted for LSU on Nov 29. Four of the replacements have already been found, officially vetted/announced, and flaunted at ND’s prospects day recruiting event on Saturday.

It’s a nice step up for the 53-year-old McNulty, fired from his last offensive coordinator job (Rutgers 2019) before reinventing himself with a partial season as an offensive analyst at his alma mater, Penn State, and two seasons coaching tight ends at Notre Dame.

McNulty would be the first to admit that Freeman could assign a houseplant to coach junior-to-be tight end Michael Mayer next season, and there’s little chance of detouring him from All-America status and a first-round NFL Draft grade.

Developing and refining the next star in the rich Irish tight end lineage is the challenge, with sophomore-to-be Mitchell Evans and June-arriving freshman Eli Raridon — in the current snapshot — the most likely to succeed.

Where McNulty was most valuable, though, was as a confidant/sounding board to 29-year-old Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees the past two seasons as the latter grew into the coordinator role Kelly anointed him with after the 2019 season and the purging of Chip Long.

“You realize that pretty quickly, whatever the age is, it doesn’t matter,” McNulty said last month of Rees, with whom he first crossed paths in 2016 with the San Diego Chargers. “He came from a place like here, where you were taught the right way and you were especially, as a quarterback, able to understand it all. It was pretty impressive.”

Mike Mickens, going into his third season as ND’s cornerbacks coach, is now the longest-tenured Irish assistant on the defensive side of the ball. He joins safeties coach Chris O’Leary, Rees and director of football performance Matt Balis as the only holdovers from last year’s 11-2 near-playoff run.

The last time the Irish hired seven new faces in an offseason, it touched off the winningest five-year span (54 victories) in program history — coupled with Kelly’s own philosophical makeover.

Ideally, at least one of the two offensive vacancies — running backs or tight ends — would go to someone with McNulty’s combination of experience and deference.

While much of the fan base might want to fit Rees with the coaching equivalent of training wheels, he’s looking for more of a co-conspirator — someone to bounce ideas and concepts off them, not put them on cue cards for him.

Both positions scream for an elite recruiter, especially in Freeman’s new world. But if Indiana associate head coach/running backs Deland McCullough is going to be pried out of Bloomington after just one year back in the collegiate ranks, the opportunity to make a difference in the offensive meeting rooms would certainly make a third job in three years more attractive.

The 49-year-old McCullough left a great gig with the Kansas City Chiefs, coaching running backs, after the 2020 season to come back for a second tour of duty at IU, in part to accelerate the timeline toward his aspirations of becoming a college head coach someday.

He and Chicago Bears running backs coach Michael Pitre, who may not be retained under a new coaching staff in Chicago, were expected to interview early this week.

Freeman’s replacement for himself, as defensive coordinator/linebackers coach, could have been settled early this week. Front-runner Al Golden was scheduled to interview on Monday, but the Cincinnati Bengals earning a Super Bowl berth on Sunday scrambled those plans.

Golden, 52, is the Bengals’ linebackers coach. Both sides soon hope to find out if he’s a Notre Dame fit, though it's unclear yet how and when that can happen. Freeman appears to be willing to wait, per a source.

Notre Dame could pivot to University of Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi if the final chemistry test with Golden ends the way it did with Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock 2 ½ weeks ago.

For the impatient, and especially those with the-sky-is-falling tendencies, a perceived sudden lack of continuity might be alarming. But strong football culture endures when there’s a commitment to it and belief in it.

Balis may be the best in the college game at player development, and that includes the mental side and building strong team dynamics. The draft deferment of players like Jarrett Patterson, Isaiah Foskey and the Ademilola twins isn’t just about talent, it’s about elite leadership in the players ranks.

And unretiring/returning offensive line coach Harry Hiestand walking back in the door is all about enriching the culture and living up to standards.

In that light, change is hardly cause for concern, but an opportunity to add the right pieces — and fits — to Freeman’s evolved vision for Notre Dame football.

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