SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is counting on its new defensive coordinator to groom a hungry unit in hopes of another trip to the College Football Playoff and the school’s first national championship since 1988.
“We want to be aggressive in what we do,” said 35-year-old Marcus Freeman, who left Cincinnati and replaces now-Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea running the Fighting Irish defense. “Sometimes it’s not going to be perfect, but if you continue to play with great effort and attitude, (if) you’re disruptive, good things will happen.”
After 11 spring practices, Freeman’s defenders have been just that and the differences are clear.
Fifth-year nose tackle Kurt Hinish: “We play a lot more fast and a lot more free because the defense isn’t as complicated as we’ve had in the past.”
Senior linebacker Bo Bauer: “It’s kind of nice to play free and to know that if things don’t go exactly as planned, that effort and our attitude will take over. Coach Lea is a great coach, but he asked us to know a lot of rules and be detail-oriented. Sometimes it was difficult to play with your natural instincts.”
Or, as senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola put it: “He wants us to go eat.”
One player leery of picking up his knife and fork: 6-foot-3, 270-pound fifth-year player Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who has dropped 15 pounds to move from defensive tackle to defensive end this spring. He said he hopes the spring-time disruption he sees will translate into the fall when Notre Dame opens its season Sept. 5 at Florida State.
“We’re throwing a lot at our offense,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said of the multiple-front defense that Freeman intends to employ. “It’s really simple. Once a play is called, no checks. It’s just put your foot on the gas and just go. That’s really what it is.”
Freeman, a former standout linebacker at Ohio State whose professional career was cut short by an enlarged heart, spent four seasons on Luke Fickell’s staff at Cincinnati as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. The Bearcats improved each season. In 2020, Cincinnati finished eighth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game), 13th in total defense (324.6 yards per game), 13th in rushing defense (111.1 yards per game) and third in pass-efficiency defense.
“We have always been and will always be a defensive line-driven program,” Freeman said. “That means as our defensive line goes, our defense will go. They are extremely deep at the position. Coach (Mike) Elston has done an unbelievable job with those guys to get them to learn the scheme, to learn the things we want them to do, and it’s made it easier for linebackers, safeties and corners to make the transition of a new defense.”
Two defensive end stalwarts from last season – Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji – could be drafted by NFL teams next week.
But there shouldn’t be a dropoff for the Irish with the move of Tagovailoa-Amosa to join Justin Ademilola (Jayson’s twin) at defensive end and 6-foot-5, 257-pound junior Isaiah Foskey and 6-foot-3, 248-pound sophomore Jordan Botelho replacing Hayes as the end who will be asked to rush the quarterback as well as to drop back in pass coverage.
Foskey was second on the team in sacks in 2020 with 4.5 behind Ogundeji’s seven, while Botelho was a special teams standout last season, scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt.
“I remember when I got here people were saying (Foskey) is the potential first-round pick of the future,” Freeman said. “When we talk about being disruptive, Jordan is one of the leaders of being disruptive. He plays with the effort and the reckless abandon we need every member of our defense to play with.”
The secondary again will be led by All-America free safety Kyle Hamilton, who is recovering from ankle surgery and not participating this spring. His spot has been taken by senior DJ Brown while the strong safety is senior Houston Griffith, who left the transfer portal after talking with coach Brian Kelly and Freeman in January. Senior Tariq Bracy, junior Cam Hart and sophomore Clarence Lewis have been getting most of the reps among the cornerbacks.
Freeman’s linebackers have been learning the multiple positions. Bauer is expected to share time with grad student Drew White, who has been sidelined by an ankle injury, while senior Shayne Simon and junior Marist Liufau are the weakside candidates. Junior Jack Kiser and grad student Isaiah Pryor have been splitting the work to replace All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at rover.
“When we get into the fall, we’ll start with the best three linebackers and put them on the field – I don’t care what position,” Freeman said.