You can’t spell Freeman without free.
That is one of the mandates for the 2021 Notre Dame defense under first-year defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Marcus Freeman. Football paralysis by over-analysis is anathema to an individual who was one of the most in-demand coordinators in the country last year after a highly successful stint at the University of Cincinnati the past three seasons in which he helped a 31-6 run by the Bearcats.
Per rising senior linebackers Bo Bauer and Paul Moala regarding their initial meetings with Freeman, a premium is placed on playing with the Three F’s: free, fast and fun — and, from a phonetical and alliteration standpoint, physical.
“Defensive-wise, it’s not too hard to get down,” said rover Moala, who is limited while recovering from an Achilles tear suffered in the Florida State game last Oct. 10 but has been “fabulous” in his rehab, according to head coach Brian Kelly. “He doesn’t want us thinking out on the field, he just wants us playing smart.”
“He’s more of a loose, free guy… It didn’t seem like such a tense atmosphere,” Bauer said.
Caution and context must always be included with such statements. One might also interpret being “loose and free” as undisciplined and not structured, whereas 2018-20 Fighting Irish coordinator Clark Lea was the embodiment of meticulous preparation and assignment consciousness.
Now the first-year head coach at Vanderbilt, Lea was one of the two or three most renowned Notre Dame assistants since the turn of the century during a 33-5 run in his three seasons as coordinator. Not only did the Fighting Irish advance to the College Football in two of those three seasons, but for the first time since 1969-71 they finished among the top 15 nationally in scoring defense three consecutive seasons.
Freeman himself stated that one would have to be a “crazy person” to change too much from what has been so successful. At the same time, he also can’t fake being someone he is not, so there is a balancing act.
Where Freeman is similar to Lea is taking the holistic approach with the student-athletes.
“He’s definitely a player coach, so that’s always a good thing to have on the team — to build a relationship outside of football,” Moala said. “The connection is definitely there.”
Bauer noted how his conversations with Freeman likewise have included his undergraduate work, potential future in grad school, family, and “being interested in all parts of our job. He brings that spirit every day.”
Consistent all-out effort, attitude and aptitude are the foremost mandates in practice that enhances one’s ability to play at a more free level.
“The level of football they want us to play at is definitely the same,” said Moala of the two coordinators he’s had. “They emphasize the totem pole is horizontal. There’s really no hierarchy among the coaches and the players. They really want the players and the coaches to be the same level in communicating.”
A development to watch is perhaps some more cross-training with players while playing either 4-3 or 3-man front alignments. For example, fifth-year senior tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa could also line up quite a bit as an end, which he did in Saturday’s initial spring practice.
“We think he’s certainly capable of giving us the kind of solid technique necessary to play that big end position,” said Kelly of Tagovailoa-Amosa. “He’s got the size, he’s got the strength, he’s put on some weight, so he’s up for it.”
Similar versatility to marry with scheme will be required at all positions.
“What I’m looking for is the ability to play the position and not just be the boundary corner, but you can play corner or wide corner,” Kelly said. “Not just be the field safety, but you can be the field safety, the rolled-up safety …
“I want our players to understand the position and how it fits within the defensive structure, so just a smart football player. Somebody that pays attention to detail and really learns the technical and tactical pieces to play this game. That’s really a huge part of spring practice.”
Last year, Bauer came into his own as a productive tag-team player with Drew White at Mike linebacker. White usually played the first two downs (460 snaps, per Pro Football Focus), and Bauer (297 snaps) would often be inserted on third down or sub packages in his place.
Possibly in the current scheme, White and Bauer could be on the field at the same time.
“[Lea] asked of us to know a lot of different rules and be very detail oriented, which is very important to our process,” Bauer said. “But sometimes it was difficult to play with your natural instincts. It was really a good time for me to be able learn how to be part of a unit and do one job, so that was very important to my growth.
“I do think it might be easier this year to learn both positions since [Freeman] has kind of already been teaching people all the positions, that they’re all inter-connected and it’s important to know what the other people are doing at their own position.
“…There’s less complexity maybe in making calls and changing things right before the snap and more just knowing the rules and knowing how to execute.”
Whatever his role — including as a leader on special teams — Bauer will be the good soldier with any coordinator.
“At the end of the day I’m here to serve those on my team,” Bauer said. “I don’t want any selfishness to take it away from the team.”
Some things don’t change.