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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

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Cahill: Will third-year magic spark another title run?

After two middling seasons, Notre Dame is ready for magic in Marcus Freeman’s third season

The excitement surrounding the hire of Marcus Freeman back on Dec. 3, 2021, was quickly tempered by an 0-3 record in his first three games. The first of which, the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, seemed the dream start as the Irish took a 28-0 lead into halftime. The tide turned after the half, however, and what looked like an inbound New Year’s Six bowl victory quickly turned into a terrible collapse.

Losing the opener on the road in the following season against Ohio State was expected, but dropping the home opener against Marshall in the next game was devastating. Notre Dame dropped another game as heavy favorites that year, losing to rival Stanford. Already in year one, Freeman had to deal with blots on his resume.

The following season, Freeman’s Irish got another shot at the Buckeyes, this time at home. Facing a weakened version of an Ohio State offense that lost superstar quarterback C.J. Stroud to the draft gave a new-look Irish team with graduate transfer Sam Hartman at the helm a prime opportunity on the biggest stage. After a cagy defensive battle, Notre Dame needed one more stop to win the game. The Buckeyes drove down dramatically, relying on multiple third and fourth-down conversions and drive-saving Irish mistakes. They eventually punched it in at the goal line with no time remaining, driving a dagger into Notre Dame’s playoff hopes.

The decisive win of the Freeman era, one that would propel the team into true contention, would have to wait another season. The worst part: during the final play, Notre Dame’s defense fielded only 10 players coming out of a timeout, an inexcusable coaching error. Now, with Freeman entering his third season, there has never been more on the line for the Irish to make the now-expanded playoff field. I’m going to explain why, despite this immense pressure, this year’s Notre Dame team is more than capable of doing it.

While there have been many challenging moments early on in the Freeman era, it is important that impatient and exasperated fans, and there are many, don’t give up on him already. When looking at Freeman’s credentials, optimism for the future outweighs any doubts about the past. His time at Notre Dame has had many highs, from resounding home victories over Clemson in year one and USC in year two to bowl game victories in the past two years capping off nine and 10-win seasons respectively.

Some of his greatest success has come on the recruiting trail, where, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, the Irish have put together three of their best four classes by total points and points per player average. There has also been a marked increase in the number of four and five-star players, with 37 recruited in Freeman’s first two years, a number that former head coach Brian Kelly never surpassed in any two-year stretch, coming closest between 2012-2013 with 35. But through all his success bringing in talent on the field, it may be his coaching hires that have made the most impact. 

His choice of defensive coordinator Al Golden has proven to be a massive success. During the 2023 regular season, Golden’s defense ranked seventh in scoring, second in pass efficiency, fifth in yards per game allowed, 12th in turnovers gained and second in red zone scoring defense. These numbers are even more impressive when considering how few elite draft prospects he had to work with.

On the offensive side of the ball, Freeman brought in his top choice for the 2024 season, Mike Denbrock, who returns to Notre Dame after serving as offensive coordinator for five years at Cincinnati and two at LSU. The Tigers' offense under Denbrock was the best in the country last season, averaging 45.5 points and 543.5 yards of offense per game. He also contributed to the emergence of Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels, who experienced a meteoric increase in production compared to his previous three seasons as a starter at Arizona State. In his best season with the Sun Devils, he threw for 2,943 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 355 yards. In 2023, he passed for 3,812 yards with 40 scores while rushing for 1,134 yards. Night and day for the projected top-three pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Pairing Denbrock with another mobile quarterback in senior transfer Riley Leonard boosts the ceiling for this Irish offense.

A hire that may fall under the radar following the contract extensions for both coordinators is that of strength coach Loren Landow. Often an underappreciated position on the staff, the strength coach plays a pivotal role in player development, acting as the central voice for nine months out of the year. Landow has five years of valuable experience at the NFL level with the Denver Broncos and has worked with a wide variety of athletes, including UFC fighters and Olympic medalists. He offers a unique, new mentality to training, emphasizing a smarter and more individualized approach rather than the traditional rah-rah demands to “work harder.” Freeman’s hiring process has been intelligent and intentional. The staff he has built will put his team in a position to succeed next season.

Turning the focus to the field, the Irish are returning plenty of talent, including key players on every level of an elite defense. The first name on this list has to be star cornerback Benjamin Morrison, a projected first-round pick. The junior followed up a breakout rookie season with another strong year, logging three interceptions and a team-high 10 pass breakups to finish as a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. Joining him in the secondary is graduate student Xavier Watts, who stuffed the stat sheet last season with seven interceptions en route to winning the Bronko Nagurski Award and being named a unanimous All-American.

Jack Kiser will serve as the veteran leader of an up-and-coming linebacker core. The graduate student finished third on the team with 62 tackles last season. Graduate students Howard Cross and Rylie Mills also return up front having started all 13 games last season with Cross earning Second Team All-American honors.

There is far less continuity on the offensive side of the ball with Sam Hartman and Audric Estimé out the door as well as Rico Flores, who exited through the transfer portal after a strong rookie campaign. Most concerning is the instability on the offensive line following the departure of tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher. With that said, sophomore wide receivers Jordan Faison and Jaden Greathouse, both of whom flashed last season, return alongside the offense’s best receiving weapon, senior tight end Mitchell Evans. The running back room looks stronger than ever with juniors Gi’Bran Payne and Jadarian Price as well as sophomore Jeremiyah Love returning. All three contributed with limited touches behind Estimé last season, and each offers a valuable skill in what will be a committee in the backfield.

With Riley Leonard added to this group of skilled position players, the sky is the limit. While the transfer’s tremendous physical talent is raw and his health has been a concern in the offseason, the potential for his development gives this Irish offense access to heights that were not previously reachable with more finished products at quarterback (e.g. Hartman, Coan, Pyne). Pair that potential with a proven defense, and you have yourself a legitimate contender.

The college football landscape has never been more open than right now. The introduction of NIL and the retirement of Nick Saban has leveled the playing field and given opportunities to teams outside of Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and Georgia, a group that has dominated the playoff era. Add that to the expanded playoff field, and teams have more belief than ever before that they can win a national title.

Looking at the 2024 schedule, which is without any of the aforementioned powerhouses, Notre Dame will have a clear path to a playoff spot if it can take care of business. More than that, if everything breaks right for this team health-wise, there is no reason it should not be hosting a first-round playoff game at Notre Dame Stadium in December. The story of Notre Dame coaches in their third season is well-told. Parseghian, Devine, Holtz, Kelly. They all either made it to or won the national title. This season will be, you guessed it, the third season for Freeman.

Approaching this fork in the road, it’s time for the Freeman era to truly begin. I believe he and his team are ready to do it.

The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of The Observer.