Notre Dame DC Marcus Freeman On His Defensive, Recruiting Philosophies
Over the course of his tenure at Notre Dame, defensive coordinator Clark Lea produced a championship-level defense that sparked two College Football Playoff berths.
Lea is now at Vanderbilt as the Commodores' new head coach, leaving major shoes for his replacement Marcus Freeman to fill in South Bend.
Fortunately, Freeman has already proven he too can produce playoff-worthy defenses.
As the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, he implemented top-20 defensive squads, including the No. 2 ranked unit in the 2020 DFEI Defense Ratings.
So how did Freeman implement such a stout defense at Cincinnati as a member of the American Athletic Conference and with significantly less talent than most Power Five programs?
Freeman recently appeared on the Make Defense Great Again podcast to shed some light on his defensive and recruiting philosophies and discussed the “Dollar Package” he ran at Cincinnati.
At Cincinnati, Freeman’s base defense was a 3-3-5, putting five defensive backs on the field at once. This allowed the Bearcats to match up better with the prolific passing offenses in the AAC. At Cincinnati, they referred to this base defensive scheme as the Dollar Package.
“It's just funny how it evolved. I don't even know how we got to the name dollar,” Freeman said. “We renamed what used to be a Sam linebacker. For recruiting, we went to change the name to a sniper, because we thought it would be more attractive for the kids to come play sniper. Then all of a sudden, we evolved and we said, 'let's call this 3-3-5 a dollar package.' Then we changed the name to a dollar.
“Us coaches sometimes get really creative. I don't know exactly what it all meant. But it is a Dollar Package, and our players were able to do a good job within the scheme.”
This package was created and evolved out of necessity. At the start of the 2019 season, Cincinnati still ran a 4-3 as its base defense. But prior to the season opener against UCLA, starting safety James Wiggins went down with an ACL tear.
“We have a next-man-up mentality. The next guy came in there, and he did a good job,” Freeman said. “UCLA came to Cincinnati, and we were able to win. But over the course of that season, we started to see that the strength of the backup safety was not to be down there and play man covered on a slot [receiver]. He did a lot of things well, but that wasn't what he did well.
"So we had to figure out a way to still defend. We still wanted to play some version of man as our base coverage. But obviously, we couldn't do it with four DBs.”
That season, Cincinnati had plenty of depth along the defensive line, but there wasn't a single standout player. So Freeman decided to add a nickel corner to the base defense and remove a lineman.
From there, the Dollar Package evolved, but always with the objective to match up with opposing offenses in space. The same scheme carried over to 2020 when Cincinnati had one of the best defenses in college football.
Does that mean Notre Dame will lean on the Dollar Package in 2021? The defense could evolve in that direction over time.
But as Freeman demonstrated at Cincinnati, he’s more than capable of adjusting his defense on the fly to meet the strengths of his personnel and to match up better with opponents. It starts with putting his players in a position to succeed and getting the 11 best defenders on the field together.
In the few months since he took the job at Notre Dame, Freeman has made it abundantly clear that recruiting high-impact defensive talent is a top priority.
Of that group, Gobiara is the lone three-star prospect. But based on the film from the first few weeks of his junior season this spring, it’s only a matter of time before he earns an illustrious fourth star.
Along with Notre Dame’s defensive assistants, Freeman also has the Irish in the top group for several other potential Rivals250 prospects. After signing just a couple of four-star defensive prospects in 2021, the Irish are in an excellent position to put together the best defensive recruiting class in head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame.
His chops on the recruiting trail play off of his approach as a defensive coordinator.
“That's my philosophy. Different coordinators, different coaches have different philosophies, and that's just mine,” Freeman said. “We're going to recruit really well. I'm going to try out work in recruiting so that over time when we step on the field, we have an advantage. That's a belief of mine.”
With that, Freeman doesn’t intend to get into a chess match with opposing offensive coordinators. He teaches his players to play fast, to play free and to react to what the offense is doing rather than trying to out scheme opponents.
“I believe we have to be multiple, but we're going to do what we do in terms of our kids are not going to be confused,” Freeman said. “They're going to get good at the things we ask them to do. Now we have enough defenses that you can't just line up and say, 'this is what they're going to [run] right now.' But our kids are going to know what to do, and are going to know how to do it.
“So we can spend time on making sure we coach the heck out of fundamentals. I think people say all the time, but do they really practice that? Do you really stress them?”
To be successful that way, Freeman also needs his players to meet the standards of playing fast and be physical at all times.
But even as Freeman and the Notre Dame staff signs top prep talent, it’s important to remember that Freeman is more than capable of producing a championship-level defense without a team full of top-100 recruits. From 2017-2020, Cincinnati signed just five four-star defensive prospects, yet still had enough talent to produce the No. 2 overall defense last fall.
Even if the raw material on defense isn't currently at the level it could be in a couple of years, Freeman has the pedigree to thrive at Notre Dame as he adjusts the smorgasbord of offensive schemes he'll face this fall.
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