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Notre Dame Hires Cincinnati’s Marcus Freeman As Defensive Coordinator

Notre Dame has landed one of college football’s coveted up-and-comers for its defensive coordinator spot.

The Irish have hired Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to the same position, the school has announced. He will also coach the linebackers. Freeman replaces Clark Lea, who left to become the head coach at Vanderbilt after three seasons.

“As we looked into finding someone to run our defense, it was important to find the right fit for our program and Marcus and his family are just that,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “He has had great success on the field, both running a defense and in his direct work with his linebackers. Additionally, he is considered among the elite recruiters in the coaching ranks.

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Marcus Freeman, 34, is Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator.
Marcus Freeman, 34, is Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator. (USA Today Images)

“The work Marcus has done elevating the programs he has been a part of speaks for itself, but equally as important is the exceptional work he has done in building relationships with his staff and players. Marcus was our top choice to become our next defensive coordinator, and we are pleased he and his family will be joining us at Notre Dame.”

Freeman, 34, spent the last four years in charge of Cincinnati’s defense and helped lead the Bearcats to a 9-1 record and a No. 8 ranking in the College Football Playoff top 25 this season, which ended with a Peach Bowl loss to Georgia. He was one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach.

Under Freeman’s direction, Cincinnati’s 2020 defense ranked fourth in yards per play (4.57), eighth in scoring (16.8), third in FEI and sixth in SP+. It was particularly stingy defending the pass, allowing a 53.2 percent completion rate (ninth nationally). The Bearcats averaged 5.5 passes defended (11th) and 1.67 interceptions per game (third). They are 31-6 since 2018.

The defense has been built around an aggressive, productive secondary. In each of the last three seasons, Cincinnati has finished with an opponent completion rate below 54 percent and in the top 15 in pass efficiency defense. It is one of three teams to finish in the top 25 in passes defended per game from 2018-20 (LSU and Alabama are the others). Elsewhere, Cincinnati finished 24th in tackles for loss per game in 2019 and 2020.

At Cincinnati, Freeman ran a multiple-front defense that has used 4-3, 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 alignments. The 3-3-5 was a staple of the last two seasons. Under Lea and 2017 predecessor Mike Elko, Notre Dame ran a four-man front with a “rover” that was a hybrid linebacker/nickel back. It often shifted to a three-man front in nickel and dime packages. Kelly was open to scheme flexibility, but not to the point where it tore up existing infrastructure.

“As long as the system can marry with our recruiting, that's the most important thing,” Kelly said before the playoff. “I'm open to what the system looks like — it doesn't necessarily have to be always four down [linemen]. We can be in some three down and some four down.

“But it can't be — we're not going to a 3-4 defense. We will be a team that is continuously looking at our personnel that we've been recruiting to match the scheme.”

Kelly convinced Freeman to come to Notre Dame and leave his job working for Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, whose name also comes up in connection with major Power Five openings and figured to take Freeman with him if he landed one. Fickell turned down an offer to be Michigan State’s head coach early in 2020. Freeman reportedly declined an offer to be the Spartan’s defensive coordinator after they hired Mel Tucker as their head coach.

Freeman and Fickell have been joined together for much of the last two decades, starting when Freeman was a player at Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne High School. Fickell recruited Freeman, a highly touted linebacker, to Ohio State and was his position coach with the Buckeyes during Freeman’s college career from 2004-08. In 2010, Fickell also gave Freeman his first job in coaching as an Ohio State graduate assistant.

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Before the pair reunited at Cincinnati prior to the 2017 season, Freeman was the linebackers coach at Kent State from 2011-12 and at Purdue from 2013-16. He added co-defensive coordinator to his duties in 2016.

At Notre Dame, Freeman reunites with Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, who held the same role at Cincinnati from 2018-19 and was a high school teammate of Freeman’s.

A source told BlueandGold.com Freeman interviewed for Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator job in person on Jan. 5 and LSU’s a couple days later. He was reportedly a finalist for Illinois’ head coach position. His name came up in connection with Auburn’s, Michigan’s and Texas’ defensive coordinator searches.

Freeman is the fifth defensive coordinator of Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure.

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