Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his defensive coordinator, Marcus Freeman, will be standing opposite the University of Cincinnati (UC) during this Saturday’s Top 10 matchup. It will be the former UC employees’ first time facing Cincinnati since they departed from the program.
Brian Kelly, who was the head coach at UC from 2006-2009, led the Bearcats to one of their more successful stints in history. Kelly and the Bearcats went 34-6 during his tenure, including a Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl appearance. Coincidentally, if the stats were to exclude current head coach Luke Fickell’s inaugural 4-8 season, Fickell’s Bearcats are also 34-6.
“Luke (Fickell) has done a great job obviously at Cincinnati and they’re deserving of where they’re ranked,” Kelly said. “This is clearly, from our perspective, the best team that we played up to this point.”
Kelly has had a stellar career at Notre Dame, including a College Football Playoff appearance in the 2018 season that resulted in a loss to Clemson, the eventual champions. The Fighting Irish’s defense was in need of a shake-up a few years later, which resulted in naming former UC defensive coordinator Freeman as their own defensive coordinator.
Freeman, an Ohio native and former NFL player, was one of Fickell’s first hires on his coaching staff and made an impact from the start. Since he was hired at UC, The Bearcat defense has been nationally known for its stature and firepower, which is still evident after his departure following the 2020 season.
Under his command, the Cincinnati defense led the American Athletic Conference in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense in the 2018 season, and was top three in the conference for the following season.
His impact has been quickly recognized in his three games coaching the Fighting Irish so far this season, specifically drawing praise for his players’ performance in their 41-13 victory over a then-ranked Wisconsin Badgers team.
Unlike Kelly, Freeman has coached numerous players still currently on this Bearcat football team. Almost all defensive upperclassmen experienced at least one season under Freeman, and know how he runs a show. With so much Bearcat blood running through this Notre Dame team, it’s easy to forget that Notre Dame also runs through this Cincinnati staff.
While obviously Fickell and Freeman were former coworkers, it’s easy to forget the relationship between Kelly and current Bearcat offensive coordinator, Mike Denbrock. Denbrock is a former Notre Dame coach who worked alongside Kelly for seven years, and similarly to Freeman, was one of Fickell’s first Bearcat hires.
Denbrock coached in various offensive roles at Notre Dame before officially being named offensive coordinator in 2014. Denbrock mentored a handful of successful NFL prospects at Notre Dame and is already proving he can do the same with UC athletes.
“Certainly they [have] played really good defense and Marcus Freeman has obviously been allotted for that,” Kelly said. “But Mike Denbrock has done an incredible job on the offensive side of the ball, as well.”
Looking at this game through the players’ lens and knowing how big it is for them and their ranking is easy, but realizing what’s on the line for the coaches leading both sidelines can’t be glossed over. Both sets of coaches being familiar with the other side will make for one of the more interesting games in college football this season.