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Notre Dame Football

Irish keeping Fiesta plans intact; Freeman talks Buchner, staff timeline

December 22, 2021
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Marcus Freeman examined virtually every possibility for his Notre Dame team as it pertains to logistics for the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State – including a scenario in which the Fighting Irish would not have reported to Arizona until a mere 48 hours before kickoff.

Ultimately, Freeman – Notre Dame’s head coach of less than a month – counseled with his assistant coaches and the Irish’s player leaders to keep the focus in the present and trust his team to make COVID-conscious decisions before the New Years Six showdown against Oklahoma State.

The Irish have one more bowl practice here in South Bend, Indiana, and then will briefly break for Christmas. They’re scheduled to reconvene back on campus Dec. 26 and fly Dec. 27 to the host site of the Fiesta Bowl.

“There was an option to go out two days before the bowl game,” Freeman said Wednesday afternoon inside Notre Dame Stadium. “They (Fiesta Bowl officials) called today and said, ‘Hey, you can come out two days before the bowl game,’ but we think it's smarter for us that they're going to go home, come back and be together.

“Let's get together and let's get out there on Monday and make sure that we're in our own bubble and not off at different places. So, we'll be out there on Monday and our team is looking forward to going in and it's a reward for them. We're there to win a championship and we're there to finish as champions, but there's a reward to be able to go to Arizona from Monday to Saturday and spend some time in that warm climate.”

In the unusual position of making his head coaching debut in a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl contest, Freeman nonetheless has steadfastly kept focus on the present – specifically his desire to finish as “champions” and send off Notre Dame’s historic senior class with a final victory.

It’s been decades since the Fighting Irish (11-1), who just missed an at-large College Football Playoff berth and closed the season ranked No. 5 in the CFP, won a traditional New Year’s bowl contest.

“To me, the whole focus is to send this group out as champions,” Freeman said. “That's what I said to them the first day I addressed them in the locker room, and that's what I said to them today in our team meeting. Our only focus is to finish this year as champions, and the result of that and what that does for our program will be great.

“But our drive and our focus and our motivation is to send this group of seniors that are playing their last game out as champions.”

PLAY-CALLING NOT YET SET

Freeman shared that he has been impressed with Mike Elston’s work as the defensive play-caller during bowl preparations, but Freeman hasn’t yet determined exactly what the formula will be for the Irish against the No. 9 Cowboys (11-2).

“I'll be involved with some other things that we do defensively, but we're still going to figure it out,” Freeman said. “But Elston has kind of taken that role in practice. Here's the game plan, call it. We'll work hand-in-hand. But the whole staff has done an unbelievable job. Everybody has stepped it up because I'm pulled away. You see Nick Lezynski step it up, you have seen Mike Elston and Mike Mickens and Chris O'Leary, everybody has stepped up their game in preparation. I think Elston being the one that calls it in practice, he has done an unbelievable job.

“To answer your question, it's to be determined."

BUCHNER HAS SPECIAL POTENTIAL

In many ways, aside from some moments in preseason camp, Freeman is getting his most extensive looks these days at Tyler Buchner, Notre Dame’s presumptive quarterback of the future.

And Freeman, who’s been around no shortage of big-time quarterbacks through the years, gushed about Buchner’s skill-set.

“What I see is a dude (in Buchner) that can throw the ball; he has a great release and he can put the ball in places that I haven't seen many people do,” Freeman said. “Then, obviously, we know he can escape. He has the ability to extend plays with his legs, but you just watch a freshman just grow. The decision-making, that's the most part. I'll listen for that. When I hear Tommy (Rees) talking to Tyler or Tommy talking to any of the quarterbacks, I just listened for, ‘Hey, is it a physical thing or is it a decision-making thing?’ You just want to continue to see that growth in the decision-making. But he's a talent. He's a real talent.”

FILLING OUT THE STAFF

Again, nothing is deterring Freeman from the immediate goal at hand: guiding the Irish to a bowl win to punctuate this season and the careers of so many players.

Nonetheless, there are staff issues Freeman is going to need to address after the New Year’s Day game. Notre Dame needs a new special teams coordinator and Freeman’s replacement at defensive coordinator; offensive line coach Jeff Quinn interviewed lately at Nebraska and it’s widely expected the Irish will make a change at that spot.

Freeman said timing matters – but fit trumps all.

"Every decision I make is a collective group,” Freeman said. “I'm going to lean on the staff. I'm going lean on the people around me, and that's how I've always been. I don't have every answer, but I think at some point you got to make a decision. But the ability to take some people's advice and opinions that are really, really intelligent people, that's something I've always done and I'll continue to do.

“I want it to happen fast and want it to happen as fast as we can, but I'm not going to take away from the right fit for time. That's the one thing I know. However long it takes to make the right guy, whoever the right guy is, however long that takes, I'm going take it. But the sooner the better."

 
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