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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

December 23, 2021

Marcus Freeman didn’t do any interviews this season before being elevated to head coach, but he’s made quite the impression any time he’s had an opportunity to speak with the media recently. Whether you feel his answers are refreshing or that he needs play things closer to the vest, it can’t be denied that he’s been forthright about his vision for the program so far.

Maybe some people are uncomfortable with it because they want to see him win first. I think he’s doing exactly what he is supposed to do. He’s selling himself and what he wants to accomplish with the program. He’ll share less as he grows into the job and everyone can wait to question him when he loses a game he’s not supposed to.

It will probably be unfair to judge him on the result of the Fiesta Bowl given that Notre Dame’s two best players opted out, but one thing that Freeman will learn, if he doesn’t know it already, is that the head coach of the present carries the weight from all of the previous head coaches. He bears no responsibility for the major bowl losses since the Cotton Bowl in 1994, but some people are going to bring up the 2001 Fiesta Bowl like it was his defense that got throttled by Oregon State.

Beating Oklahoma State and their great defense is going to be a challenge and I believe Notre Dame will be up for it. It has little to do with any hype around Freeman and the future for the Irish. It has a lot more to do with the approach Freeman is taking in preparation for this game.

ISD’s Matt Freeman reported about the intense competition taking place at practice right now. I think that’s the right approach specifically for this matchup. Oklahoma State plays with speed and precision on defense. The best way to prepare for that is to attempt to match that in practice and that isn’t going to be accomplished by primarily working against the scout team.

The idea to work with best on best, or good on good as Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman refers to it, is the right approach. He was asked about the growth of the offensive line from the start of the season to now, but his answer transitioned into something that could have been referring to the team as whole.

“We've done a lot of good on good and you have no other option but to raise your level of play when you're going to get somebody good. If we're going against scout team, it's a little bit sometimes fit ball. I make sure I'm perfect, you're perfect, let's be good. But when you go good on good, the competitive juices come out.
“That's why it's very intentional to make good on good. We've done so much of it and probably today and tomorrow will be the last day of truly a whole bunch of good on good. It's definitely made them better. It's made both sides of the ball better. It's made our entire coaching staff, our team better because we're all natural competitors. You're going against somebody good, well, I'm gonna raise my level of play too. Teaching them the fundamentals and to see them get better at the little things, it has been really, really pleasing to see."

There’s many things we need to learn about Freeman as a game day coach and his decision-making when it comes to hiring assistant coaches or support staff, but hearing what we’ve heard about practices so far has me confident that he knows the right way to prepare for a game like this.

It also has me amped up for when we get to watch the team this spring because more competitive situations gives us in the media a better chance to learn about the players than watching mostly stretching and five minutes of individual instruction.

2. I watched a good amount of Oklahoma State’s defense over the last few days and I think the most appropriate way to describe them is that they challenge offenses on every play.

They challenge protections with a steady variety of pressures. They challenge blockers to sustain longer with the way they destroy blocks. They definitely challenge receivers to win in tight coverage and their defensive backs consistently play on the edge of taking a penalty with how physical they are when the ball is in the air.

Notre Dame isn’t going to win this game if they don’t win their fair share of contested catches. Fortunately for the Irish they have two players who have been fantastic on 50/50 balls in the second half of the season.

Kevin Austin and Michael Mayer are both over 60% on contested catch opportunities in 2021 and they’ve been even better since the Virginia Tech game. They have a combined 15 catches on 20 targets (75%) since then.

Expecting them to be at 75% might be ambitious given the challenge they’re facing in this matchup, but I think we’ll see Austin and Mayer come down with the ball or draw a penalty in big spots in the Fiesta Bowl.

3. There’s some uncertainty about whether Austin will be back next season or if he’ll elect to go pro, but this game could do a lot for his draft stock. He’s going to be tested with press coverage frequently and he’s not moving up draft boards unless he can prove he can win in those situations.

One thing that will be interesting to watch is how often Tommy Rees will elect to move Austin around either to get an easier release or find a better matchup. Austin lined up in the slot on 20.4% of pass snaps this fall, but he’s been over 30% in three games.

I think we may see it closer to the latter against Oklahoma State to have him go up against safeties more often.

4. We still don’t know who is going to be calling plays for the defense in this game, but the safe bet is on Mike Elston considering he has been making those calls during 11 on 11 in practice.

Elston called the defense after Brian VanGorder was fired in the 2016 season so he does have some experience doing it in a game. He was up in the booth then and I wonder if that would be the same this time around. He has to manage the defensive line rotation as well and that’s easier to do from the field. He coached linebackers in ‘16.

As far as how he’d call this game, I wouldn’t take anything from how he called things back then and use it as evidence for how he might call things now. That defense was inexperienced in the secondary and he had to simplify things greatly with the Irish playing plenty of base. They didn’t want to give up the big play and weren’t very aggressive with stunts or blitzes.

The personnel is much different and I don’t see him or whoever might call the defense drifting too far away from what we’ve seen in the last month of the season. There will be plenty of stunts up front.

5. The reaction to the possibility of bringing Harry Hiestand back as offensive line coach has been unsurprisingly polarizing.

Everyone remembers the good like developing multiple first round picks, winning the Joe Moore Award in 2017, and his ability to identify talent.

Many won’t forget the bad like his inaction as a recruiter or his old school approach as a coach (to put it mildly). The 2018 offensive line class he recruited was close to a Ty Willingham level group, which wasn’t exactly the best way to leave things before he took the Chicago Bears job.

When it comes to people who evaluate offensive line play specifically, Hiestand is viewed as one of the best technical coaches in the game. The evidence to back that up is pretty overwhelming. He could come in and do great things with the young talent that will be on the roster over the next few years.

There’s the potential downside there, though. That will loom over things if he is hired because the odds of him changing the way he coaches or recruits aren’t very great.

In the short term, hiring him could be a massive boom. If this isn’t viewed as a long term hire, then maybe that will outweigh everything else.

6. There’s an undeniable level of frustration when most college football fans see an elite talent like running back Jahmyr Gibbs announce that he is transferring from Georgia Tech to Alabama.

It’s not enough that they consistently recruit better than everyone else. Nick Saban has proven he can dip into the portal and land impact transfers like linebacker Henry To’oTo’o and wide receiver Jameson Williams. To’oTo’o led the Crimson Tide in tackles and Williams filled the explosive receiving hole they lost from the previous season. If Alabama doesn’t land them, they probably aren’t in the College Football Playoff this season.

It’s no different than Ohio State pulling Trey Sermon from Oklahoma last year. He rushed for 524 yards against Northwestern and Clemson to help them get into the national championship game. The 1% of college football can become even richer pretty easily and that is hard for most other programs to overcome.

Those types of “free agents” are very likely not going to be available for almost every other program and that includes a blue-blood like Notre Dame. It’s not that Freeman and his staff couldn’t persuade those players to give the Irish a shot. It’s that the academic fit will be a hurdle that Alabama or Ohio State will never have to worry about.

Maybe one day soon Notre Dame will find the right fit with an elite transfer, but it will probably have to come with someone that the Irish recruited heavily in high school previously. That’s the great thing about the board being expanded under Freeman and the Irish going toe to toe more frequently with the big boys for recruits. They might lose out on a player one year, but being in the game may lead to another connection down the road.

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