Since March 27, seven different Notre Dame defensive players have spoken to the media in a post-spring practice press conference.
No matter the position — defensive back, linebacker or lineman — each available player openly gushes about new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and how his scheme enables them to play faster and with a newfound sense of freedom.
“I’m able to be cut loose a little bit more,” said fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish. “I get a lot more one-on-one blocks with the center, which I rarely lose. That’s nice. I love this scheme. I love what we’re doing right now. And I think Coach Freeman is a great coach. We play a lot faster and a lot freer because the defense isn’t as complicated as we’ve had in the past.”
At times, it’s easy to misconstrue such unabated enthusiasm for Freeman and his scheme as an indictment of recent Notre Dame defensive coordinators Clark Lea (Irish coordinator from 2018-20) and Mike Elko (2017).
Was the 4-2-5 scheme both coordinators employed too rigid? Did players overthink defensive assignments due to complicated reads and feel lost?
When pressed, the current Notre Dame defenders push back against this sentiment. In their mind, it’s possible to love Coach Freeman’s scheme and still admire the program-transforming accomplishments of Elko and Lea.
The duo came from Wake Forest to Notre Dame together in 2017, with Elko as the defensive coordinator and safeties coach and Lea as linebackers coach.
After previously finishing outside the top 50 in Defensive FEI Ratings in 2016, Notre Dame jumped to No. 11 the following season under Elko. Then he left for Texas A&M, and Lea was promoted to defensive coordinator. In his three years at the defense’s helm, the Irish never finished worse than No. 24 and peaked at No. 5 in 2019.
Additionally, Notre Dame won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons and has made the College Football Playoffs twice.
“What Clark Lea and Mike Elko did before I got in this chair was unbelievable,” he said. “They set a standard for Notre Dame defense and it was my job to come in here and uphold that standard.
“Because we might do things a little bit differently in terms of the overall picture of the scheme — we might pressure a little more; we might move a little bit more — that doesn’t mean that this scheme is better than that scheme or anything else like that.”
In Freeman’s mind, defensive success isn’t scheme-dependent. His fast and aggressive defensive approach is what works best for him.
The key ingredients are, instead, traits instilled in Notre Dame’s defensive players before Freeman arrived.
“What we must believe it takes to have success has already been displayed before I ever got in this chair,” he said. “That to me is the effort and attitude you got to play with, the ability to get off blocks, the ability to tackle and the ability to disrupt the ball. Those four things are why we will have success.”
In terms of his actual defensive scheme, Freeman will use multiple fronts that rely on the flexibility and depth of the defensive line.
For instance, sophomore Vyper Jordan Botelho has flashed in the spring practice clips provided to the media and he’s done so as he lines up all over the field. He’ll position himself on the defensive line one play and then slide to the second level as a linebacker.
Such flexibility will allow Notre Dame’s defensive line to change looks up within the same personnel grouping.
“That’s something that we’ll spend time on just trying to continue to develop and expand the package,” Freeman said. “We want to continue to be multiple in the fronts, multiple in the movement upfront, multiple in the ways we blitz linebackers to create four- or five-man fronts. But we still have to have consistency in the way we play our coverages.”
Within that framework, players will have more of an opportunity to make plays and attack the football. Whereas under Lea, being assignment correct and doing your job was always priority No. 1.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s just different.
“We want to be aggressive in what we do, and I think sometimes giving those guys the opportunity to cut loose and to be disruptive is kind of what they’re talking about,” Freeman said. “So it still has to fit within the scheme.
“I think once they continue to get to know the scheme and get to know exactly what we’re looking for, there’s some freedom within there to be a football player. We’re going to play football.”
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