Marcus Freeman knows what Year 3 means at Notre Dame. Here’s how he wants to capitalize

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman understands the question, but Notre Dame’s head coach either can’t really answer it or doesn’t want to fully, at least not three months before the start of his third season at Notre Dame.

Freeman knows the history behind this season at this school: In short, either he’ll win a national championship this fall or it won’t happen at all. Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz did. Brian Kelly never came closer than in Year 3, even if the BCS National Championship Game itself wasn’t close. And for Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, the third season either signaled the end or the beginning of it.

“Every time I go to a Notre Dame club, I hear about that,” Freeman said. “I don’t even try to put that pressure on our program or myself to, ‘We have to win the national championship in Year 3.’ Our business is still saying, ‘We got to reach our full potential.’ How good is that? What does that do for us? We’ll see.”

It needs to be better than good. And if Freeman can capitalize on the lessons learned the past two seasons, both in terms of game day management and roster construction, it should do plenty for Notre Dame this fall. He’s already got his coaching staff in a better place than in either of the past two seasons. What worked and failed with quarterback Sam Hartman last year should help Riley Leonard this fall.

Even the experience of losing at Ohio State to begin his first season should help when Notre Dame opens at Kyle Field against Texas A&M on Labor Day weekend.

“In Year 1, you’re trying to figure out, how do I want to run practice? OK, you’re a leader in this program. What does that mean? There’s no playbook for this thing. You have to learn,” Freeman said. “So Year 3, I spent a lot of time these last couple of weeks and May spending time figuring out how to prepare better.”

During some of those alumni club visits, Freeman stopped at the nearest NFL franchise to pick brains and compare notes. He met with Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. He connected with former offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and the Cleveland Browns. He made stops with Washington Commanders, Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens. All three have former Irish players on the roster or former Notre Dame coaches on staff.

But the biggest lesson came from a May stop on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Pacific, touching down on the aircraft carrier and talking with military leadership. Not only did Freeman come away from the trip with strategies, he got a reminder in humility, a college football coach watching servicemen prepare for something bigger than a game.

“Basically, what the admirals were telling me was we’re going through spring ball. They’re gonna get ready to dock. And then they’re gonna go out for the game. It’s real,” Freeman said. “We were talking about how they were practicing, what are they looking for, how many mistakes they make? How do we correct? They got 5,000 people on that battleship. It was so good for me to just get different perspectives, different ideas of how to prepare better and say, OK, what’s best for Notre Dame football? I gained a lot of wisdom.”

Notre Dame will open fall camp on July 31 for a season with higher expectations than Freeman’s first two. Freeman said Leonard is full-go after two surgeries sidetracked the transfer quarterback’s spring practice. Tight end Mitchell Evans is expected to be full-go when camp opens after tearing his ACL last Oct. 28. Cornerback Benjamin Morrison is further away and won’t be ready for the start of fall camp but is expected to be fully cleared before the Texas A&M game.

Notre Dame could start seven graduate students on defense under third-year coordinator Al Golden, backing up incoming offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock’s rebuild of the Irish offense with Leonard. Ultimately, that may be what swings this season into the College Football Playoff and perhaps through it, as Notre Dame tries to do better for Leonard than it did for Hartman.

“I don’t know if we always put (Hartman) in a situation to be as successful as he can be,” Freeman said. “He gave us everything he had. And there was a lot of good. It’s not what he wanted, not what I wanted. But I did learn that what’s most important is that you dive into a relationship you spend time with that guy. I spent an enormous amount of time with Sam one-on-one, getting to know him. We have to trust each other, and I spent a lot of time gaining his trust.

“But it’s a different place because (Denbrock) was here. Even though it’s new for the entire offensive unit, he’s here, they’re meeting together, they can go through it, they can talk through it. I believe we have the personnel around Riley Leonard to make sure he’s successful. And that’s probably the two situations.”

Freeman put some of the blame on last year’s offensive failings in big games on how the Irish protected Hartman, but the bigger issue was a receiver position that fell apart due to injury and didn’t produce when healthy. Three grad-transfer receivers have joined the roster: Beaux Collins (Clemson), Jayden Harrison (Marshall) and Kris Mitchell (FIU). Freeman said sophomore Jaden Greathouse had the best spring of the entire group. Jayden Thomas is healthy after a hamstring injury ruined his junior year. And Jordan Faison will be a known quantity after breaking out in the second half of last season.

Point being, Leonard should have a receiver corps good enough to make a modern offense go. Freeman knows Hartman did not.

“We have to be able, when a team says we’re going to make you one-dimensional, make them pay,” Freeman said. “That, to me, was something I think at points last year when teams loaded the box and said we’re not going to let you run, we didn’t always make them pay.”

Again, these are lessons learned by Freeman during the past two years. He’s had more successes than failures to date, but Freeman knows this season is one to push Notre Dame forward. History aside, the third-year head coach has the material to do that. He may not be willing to say that out loud just yet. But he probably doesn’t have to.

“I think there’s just a confidence into what you’re doing as you go into Year 3, and you’re probably going to be different as you want to Year 4 and 5,” Freeman said. “But I think it’s just a different mindset because of the experience you’ve had.”

(Photo: Ken Ruinard / USA Today)

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