The University of Notre Dame faithful were hit with a shocking gut-punch on Monday afternoon when news broke that long-time head coach Brian Kelly was leaving the Fighting Irish for an extremely lucrative offer to become the new head coach of LSU. The unforeseen development now forces Notre Dame to make its first head coaching hire since Kelly agreed to take his talents to South Bend in December of 2009. Just days after Lincoln Riley departed Oklahoma for USC, Kelly’s appointment at LSU serves as yet another domino in what's already been a shocking and historic week of the ever-unpredictable coaching carousel in the world of college football.
Several high-profile head coaching jobs such as Florida and Oklahoma are also available, but Notre Dame arguably shoots up to the top of the list as the most desired job with an opening. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick is now tasked with making a monumentally important hire in hopes of sustaining the amount of success Kelly brought to the prestigious program in recent years. There will surely be no shortage of potential suitors, but one candidate sticks out as the odds-on favorite to usher in a new era. Swarbrick should look no further than in-house candidate Marcus Freeman.
A 35-year-old former linebacker whose professional playing career was cut short due to an unfortunate health condition, Freeman began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater Ohio State back in 2010 and has since swiftly risen through the coaching ranks in the first decade of his new profession. Swarbrick and his Notre Dame cohorts may be inclined to seek out a "splashier" hire, but they would be making a mistake by overlooking their brilliant defensive coordinator.
Freeman has largely leaned on his intelligence and work ethic to command the respect of his players. It's led to an unwavering amount of success as a defensive coordinator. Freeman helped the Cincinnati Bearcats program reach new heights defensively throughout his years in that role. Cincinnati’s defense ranked in the top 20 nationally in several categories for 2020-21, including being ranked 13th in total defense (324.6 yards per game) and eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) among all FBS teams.
Freeman then accepted a well-deserved promotion to become Kelly's defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish defense has flourished in Freeman's first season and are allowing opponents to score just 18.2 points per game—a full point-and-a-half improvement on last year's mark of 19.7. Freeman is also a phenomenal recruiter that routinely attracted NFL-level talent to a rising Bearcats program. Just imagine what he could do in a larger capacity at a program such as Notre Dame that is sure to capture the attention of more high-level recruits than Cincinnati possibly could.
Notre Dame will now make what's arguably its most important head coaching hire in several decades. While names such as Matt Campbell and Luke Fickell (who are both rumored) are excellent head coaches in their own right, Notre Dame would be wise to not overthink the process. The decision should be simple. Promote Freeman and flourish.