When Tommy Reese leaves Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman will face a crucial decision

SOUTH BEND, IN: Marcus Freeman has spent the 2022 season working his way out of his comfort zone, learning to become a head coach. Meanwhile, the former defensive coordinator has shifted his attention in practice toward the side of the ball he knows best, and has taken a less hands-on approach with offense.

It’s not that Notre Dame’s first-year coach didn’t understand what the Irish were trying to do under offensive coordinator Tommy Reese, nor that he didn’t have the final say on offensive philosophy—he green-lighted the passing play that put away Clemson. But Freeman kept the offensive playbook at arm’s length from an everyday perspective, because he could and because he had to. Reese called the plays, Freeman built relationships.

Now Freeman’s period of gradual learning may be over.

When Reese boarded the Alabama plane to Tuscaloosa on Thursday afternoon to interview for the Crimson Tide offensive coordinator job, the next phase of Freeman’s evolution as a head coach began. Because even if Reese returns to South Bend – said a source familiar with the situation the athlete Reese hasn’t made up his mind before takeoff – the clock is clearly ticking for his final departure.

It’s a good bet Marcus Freeman has spent the past year preparing for this.

When Freeman was promoted in December 2021, one of the pillars of his candidacy was the stability that came with keeping a savvy staff in place. Notre Dame just achieved its fifth consecutive season with double-digit victories. Recruitment was efficient, with the ability to find other equipment. Notre Dame is no longer the broken program that Brian Kelly got into. It was stable enough that replacing Kelly with an inexperienced coach was a calculated risk, not a reckless one.

But factored into this risk was the importance of keeping Reese on the task force, even though Kelly wanted the Chief of Operations to follow him to Baton Rouge. At the time, a program source indicated that Reese’s retention solidified Freeman’s candidacy for the top position, which may have been part of the reason the offensive coordinator had announced his intention to stay at Notre Dame before Freeman was named head coach. Combined with Matt Bales staying on as head strength coach, the key personnel retention Kelly wanted in Baton Rouge increased the head coach’s chances of winning. The more blind spots Freeman can fill in before he plays his first game, the more likely he is to be able to keep the Irish on track.

But when Reese flirted with Mario Cristobal and Miami barely a month after losing the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State, he made it clear what Freeman already knew: Reese wouldn’t be a permanent offensive coordinator for his alma mater. Nick Saban’s interest only underscores this point.

It’s not that Reese liked to travel. He’s spent nine of the past 12 football seasons at Notre Dame, not including an NFL tryout with Washington, a graduate assistant season at Northwestern and a stint as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers. But Reese also wanted to be in control of his career, whether that meant becoming a college manager or finding a place in the NFL. Professional development was one of the reasons he refused to stay with Freeman last year. And if the college football maker becomes his next boss, it will be clear that logic applies again, whether or not Reese is Saban’s first choice. That’s John Wooden or Mike Krzyzewski asking you to sit on the bench. It may not have been their first call, but do you really care?

Now Freeman could be in a position to hire the largest employee not only for his freshman year but for the rest of his tenure at Notre Dame.

There is enough talent on hand that the OC job at Notre Dame should be attractive. Not many programs have two future NFL offensive tackles and a quarterback running back with 110 touchdown passes. In fact, nobody does. Compensation is no longer an obstacle, with Notre Dame willing to pay about $2 million a year for the right coordinator. A source on the show noted that Reese was the highest-paid coordinator in Notre Dame history at the time of his new deal last December.

This means that Freeman can become senior to the next offensive coordinator. There will be no shortage of funds to do the hiring, nor will there be a lack of imagination as to what Notre Dame offense can be. Freeman has already gone on record that he wants an offensive program that’s line-based and inclined to the running game. this is good. Notre Dame doesn’t need an offensive revolution.

What matters most is Freeman finding an offensive coordinator who aligns with the way he’s running the program: a less progressive school, more of a player coach. Less former Notre Dame coach, more modern coach. This is not the idea of ​​Reese and his “do your job!” rant directed at Drew Bean and was picked up on national television. Coaches shout. Players take it. But as Freeman himself asks aloud, is there a better way?

All of which makes Freeman treat Reese’s departure more as an opportunity than as a slight. There is nothing wrong with inheriting an offensive coordinator who has proven to be in demand by Nick Saban. But the position could put Freeman in a position to make more Notre Dame football than his own program.

He had a whole year to prepare for this moment. Now is the time for Freeman to become the head coach in a different way.

(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)


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