Marcus Freeman believes there is no substitute for experience.
In his second season as Notre Dame’s coach, the 37-year-old Freeman intends to prove it by avoiding the early-season miscues that proved so costly last year.
“I had a blueprint based on other individuals’ experiences being a head coach,” he said. “I gathered my own ideas, but I’d never done it. This year, you can make enhancements based on your own personal experience.”
In 2022, the Fighting Irish fell from a preseason ranking of No. 5 and wound up unranked following season-opening losses to No. 2 Ohio State and Marshall. A few weeks later, Notre Dame lost to Stanford — a team that won only three games all season.
Freeman rebounded and led Notre Dame to a 6-1 finish, but for the first time since 2016, the Fighting Irish failed to win at least 10 games.
This year, they start at No. 13 with a schedule laced with trap games around a handful of top-10 foes.
But those tough lessons from 2022 should help Freeman navigate this season.
“Everything starts to slow down,” said defensive coordinator Al Golden, who previously spent a decade as head coach at Temple and Miami. “You know where the potholes are, and you know how to look around bends.”
While Notre Dame must replace defensive end Isaiah Foskey, the school’s career sacks leader, it will have experienced leaders in linebacker JD Bertrand and star cornerback Ben Morrison.
The offense has undergone a more dramatic offseason makeover.
Freeman promoted tight ends coach Gerad Parker to coordinator after Tommy Rees left his alma mater to take the same job at Alabama. The Irish also have a new quarterback, Sam Hartman, who transferred from Wake Forest after breaking the ACC’s career record for touchdown passes (110).
Hartman has already become a hit in the locker room.
“When you have that emotional bond, that’s when great things really are achieved,” Freeman said. “We have to continue to create that amongst our team, amongst our offense, amongst our defense.”
Hartman replaces Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner, who threw for 31 TDs and 207.1 yards per game (98th out of 131 FBS teams).
Hartman averaged more than 300 passing yards while throwing 39 and 38 TDs passes over the past two seasons. He also completed more passes of 30 or more yards than any other FBS quarterback.
Hartman’s presence also should help the ground game. The two starting tackles return, All-American Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, as well as rushing leader Audric Estimé.
A year ago, the Irish churned out 189.1 yards per game (35th) but some opponents slowed them down by stacking the line of scrimmage. That’s where Hartman helps.
“There’s ways we can enhance what we’re doing and take a step in our passing game or our run phase,” Parker said, “or how we operate against highly-loaded boxes in the run game.”
Last year, the Irish allowed 23.0 points per game (39th) — the first time they finiahws outside the top 15 since 2018. So Golden trimming the playbook.
“All I did was see what we can throw out and what we really need,” Golden said. “We threw a bunch out, and I don’t think we added a ton.”
Two other areas Golden wants to see improve: Red-zone defense and passes defensed.
Notre Dame’s opponents scored TDs on an FBS-worst 79.4% of their red-zone possessions last season while their average of 2.6 passes defensed per game ranked 128th. The Irish produced only 10 interceptions — only one through the first seven games.
“Let’s not wait like we did last year to get it going,” Golden said, “and when we did get it going, it made a difference.”
The Fighting Irish hope to start building momentum against rival Navy on Aug. 26 in Dublin. A six-game stretch that starts in late September will dictate how successful this season will be. They host No. 3 Ohio State and No. 6 USC and visit No. 9 Clemson and play three other eight-win teams — Duke, Louisville and Pitt — during that stretch.