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Notre Dame Football

Marcus Freeman talks QB battle, 100-play scrimmage, staff meetings & more

April 9, 2022
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Marcus Freeman greeted media Saturday afternoon inside Notre Dame Stadium, after his Fighting Irish squad wrapped up their 11th practice in a 104-play scrimmage setting at the Irish Athletics Center.

Freeman answered questions from a full room of reporters for nearly 20 minutes. His question-and-answer session follows.

Opening comments from MARCUS FREEMAN: I wanted to go outside, but I wanted to get efficient work so made the decision to stay inside. Had a little press box, makeshift in there. It was good, good work.

We just finished our jersey scrimmage, over 100 plays with the 1s and the 2s and it was really, really good work. Physical work. The offense won, I can’t remember the final score; they won by five points. They started off with a big lead, jumped out to a big lead, defense came back, had a takeaway late in the scrimmage. It was really, really good to see.

The thing I told them again, we try to create this competitive environment, today was about winning and losing but at the end it was over. You could sense a little bit that the defense was upset, offense was happy but how we continue to do this, compete and come together.

This is a team. It’s 147 days till we get ready to go to Columbus, Ohio, and that’s where everybody has to win. It’s not offense or defense. I was really pleased with the work today.

Q: What’s top of to-do list remainder of spring?

MF: What we’ll do is we’ll evaluate what situational football do we really, really need to get on film. I know we don’t have enough third-down plays on film from practice. We need to focus on some more third down; I’ll get with the coordinators and we’ll focus on, ‘Hey, what situations do you really need on your side of the ball?’ Game situations that we need to make sure we get on film, so that we can teach and coach from it.

I wasn’t pleased with the way we kicked today; we missed a couple field goals, so I’m going to put those guys in a little bit more competitive situations. Other than that, we’ll evaluate as a staff and end with the spring game.

Q: What’s Al Golden’s impact been on the team and on your personally?

MF: You know, I’ll start with me. He’s been great; that’s one of the main  -- not the main – but a big reason we hired him is because he’s been in my shoes, been a guy who sees things from a head coach point of view. There’s been many times he’s come to my office and said, ‘Hey, here’s something to be aware. This is something I did when I was a head coach.’ It’s something that’s been very beneficial for me being a first-time head coach.

On the team, it’s been great. I sit in a lot of his defensive unit meetings. Just to learn, just to hear him teach, he’s a great motivator, he’s super-intelligent.

Our players, I’ll tell you, they’ve learned a lot of ball. It’s funny, the other day, Coach Rees was like, ‘Are our linebackers really intelligent?’ I was like, ‘No, they’re just learning things I didn’t teach them last year.’ They’re learning situations, they’re learning alignments and stuff. Coach Golden is extremely intelligent and has coached a lot of ball; he’s doing a great job.

Q: Kickoff return?

MF: Chris Tyree is really, really good. He did a good job last year, he’ll be the guy. We’ll try to make sure he’s the guy. Brandon Joseph has done it, too. He’s obviously done some punt returning, I know Brandon Joseph and Matt Salerno both were back there returning punts today.

Q: Do you have some spots now that have developed into 1A and 1B rather than 1s and 2s?

MF: Yeah. I look at the DB position, the safety position is a deep group. You talk about Houston and DJ and Brandon and Ramon and Xavier. That group will have 1A and 1B for sure.

Something going into the spring we probably didn’t know, the D-line is extremely deep. That’s with Jayson (Ademilola) not practicing. With Foskey, Justin, Howard Cross is having an unbelievable spring, unbelievable spring; he’s done a great job. And Lacey, I could go on and on. I think the depth of our middle, up the middle, we’re really, really deep. Especially the D-line to the linebackers to the safeties, right up the middle.

We’ll have to continue to develop some young guys, Cam’s out at corner, so we’ve got to develop some young guys at corner.

The O-line, I wouldn’t say we’re 1As and 1Bs yet, but I’m really, really pleased with some of those 1As. So again, the running back position.

I think up the middle we’re really, really string but we have to continue to develop the edges.

Q: Lenzy mentioned he doesn’t think the freshmen about to be sophomores need as much leadership because of their growth. What have you seen from that trio of Styles, Thomas and Colzie?

MF: I think Coach Stuckey has done an unbelievable job with that group, one to earn their trust. It’s about earning their trust first and then coaching them and making them better football players. I’ve seen them all progress. We’ve had a couple injuries where Colzie was out early and he came back, JT’s been fine, Styles he was limited on Thursday, so some other guys had to step up. They’re getting a lot of reps. I’ve been really pleased.

Leadership is always needed. I don’t love the comment that they don’t need leadership, leadership is always needed. Peer leadership is more important than anything. When I see Lenzy, I’m going to continue to challenge him to be an on-field leader.

Q: You’ve mentioned the staff coming together. What have you seen that shows you the staff is cohesive?

MF: The first thing that sticks out is when I go into the O and D unit meetings; I’m really pleased with the way Coach Rees and Coach Golden challenge their sides of the ball. They’re speaking the same language, they’re speaking a similar language that I speak. And that’s what you want to see. You want to see everybody in your program all emphasizing the same things. And then tailoring it towards their specific schemes. I’ve been really, really happy in those unit meetings.

And we meet as a staff every day. That’s something we haven’t done in the past, and it’s very intentional. To make sure we are becoming a unit, our coaching staff has to be a unit that trusts each other and leans on each other and realizes that we all have each other’s backs. That’s something that’s been very intentional on my end, we’re going to meet as a staff, we’re going to talk through things. It could be a five-minute staff meeting, it could be an hour staff meeting, but it won’t be because of lack of communication or lack of trust among the coaches.

Q: When do you do those staff meetings?

MF: It’s pretty much the same time every day. It’s not the first thing we do in the morning, the practice days are a little different; non practice days, we usually get together at 10 o’clock.

Q: How have you put your stamp on the practice formats this spring?

MF: I’m a routine guy, right? So I like to script them all out and say let’s every day have the same routine. But then you have practice like Tuesday, I wasn’t happy with the way we practiced Tuesday. We got the work in, but we got through it. And so when you get through things, you say how can we change something up to make sure we get their attention. So Thursday was a little bit different, we started off with a competitive opener, we put O-line versus D-line, one-on-ones, and then we did wideouts versus corners, one-on-ones and then we had some coaches catching punts. We had to change it up.

To me, you set your routine but you’ve got to be able to gauge what does this team need. Tuesday wasn’t a great practice, so I’m going to go challenge them on Thursday, get in front of the room and tell them we can’t have an average practice. How can you slightly change things up so that’s it’s something new.

Q: Which coaches caught punts?

MF: Every coach caught them. I would never ask Coach Hiestand to catch one. The only one that dropped one was Ronnie, our analyst on defense.

Q: How are the conversations with Al Golden about his time as a head coach?

MF: There’s times I go to him and say, ‘Hey, have you been in this situation? What did you do?’ And then there’s times he comes to me and says, ‘Hey, just a head’s up, here’s something I did as a head coach.’ It works both ways. I’m utilizing him as much as he’s giving me suggestions, it’s been very beneficial.

Q: QB evaluation?

MF: Really, really pleased today. The only way to win the jersey scrimmage is takeaways, up until the second-to-last series, the offense didn’t turn the ball over one time but by that time the offense was way ahead. So I was really, really pleased with the work they did today, taking care of the ball, making good decisions.

It’s a great competition, especially between Tyler and Drew. It is, it’s one probably where after this jersey scrimmage I’ll sit down with Tommy and say, ‘Hey, give me your grades. Let’s talk about where you see these two.’ It’s still going to be an evolving process until you name a starter, but I wouldn’t hesitate to put either of the two in the game because they’re both really good football players who can help us win. I look forward to sitting down with Coach Rees and just really looking at it from a quarterbacks’ point of view, did the make the right decisions, and did they execute. It’s been really good.

Q: What are the cumulative benefits of those daily staff meetings? What kind of example does that set for your players to see and perhaps emulate?

MF: It starts with everybody being on the same page, and a lot of those staff meetings, right now, you go over the practice schedule, you go over recruiting, you go over any points of emphasis you need to hit. So we know everybody and their schedule has a block to make sure we get together. There might be days where I text them and say, ‘Hey, we don’t need to have a staff meeting,’ but I want us to all be in a routine of, ‘Hey, every day at this time let’s plan to get together.’ I think when you have a group of a lot of new people, or people that maybe have been here, the ability to get together, spend time together and talk about things is so important.  How can you trust people if you don’t spend time with them? And that’s the type of leader I am, I’m a teammate. And so if I want these guys to trust me, I need them to be around me.

We have honest conversations. Sometimes it’s just boom-boom, here’s the practice schedule, here’s the daily schedule, we’re on the same page.

Sometimes we sit and say, ‘OK, here’s the expectations. Here’s things we have to make sure we’re on the same page and we’re all speaking the same language.’ It can depend on what is needed.

Q: From an analytics standpoint, how are you utilizing everything from the GPS data that you receiver and other metrics to your own implementation of analytics as it pertains to game play?

MF: Every day after practice I get with Coach Balis, and we look at the GPS systems and who’s in red, who has high-value numbers. I told the staff on Thursday, right now every number is above where it’s been. And so it’s great, it’s showing that their workload can increase but also that you can sustain if you continue to do it right. We haven’t had those small tissue strains. It’s a credit, to me, to being able to look at the analytics and look at their workload and also push them to get treatment. Hey, he’s in red, usually it’s be careful. Guess what? He hit the same workload the next day, and he’s fine.

Braden Lenzy is the first person I think about. His workload has increased, and it’s just shown over the 10 practice, 11 practices, he just needs pushed. And he’s been great, his body can handle it. We study it every day, and every post-practice.

In terms of on-the-field analytics, we’ve been meeting about it. I met with the company that does ours. For me, it’s continuing to learn and me and Tommy are going to spend a lot of time together in terms of how much we’ll use them, but there’s a lot of situational football that analytics can show you in terms of ways to improve.

Q: How does Al Golden teach and deal with guys in those team settings?

MF: Al’s a guy that has a lot of energy, a guy that is very, very intelligent; really organized. So when you sit in his meetings, you go what’s the message of this meeting, what’s the point. It can be examples from Notre Dame, from the NFL. You can’t just present. There’s got to be an atmosphere of they’re engaged. It’s about setting the tempo, setting the mode, it’s meeting time. However you want to do that as a coach, here’s the things I want to get across. We can teach how do we want to defend the screen, let’s set the tempo, set the mode, set the agenda, talk about how to defend screens, and show good and bad examples and show good and bad examples from the NFL. It’s been really good to see from my chair.

Q: What does it take to be a good mode-setter?

MF: Sometimes you’ve got to get everybody’s attention, you’ve got to raise your voice. You’ve got to call some people out. Or, it’s these guys are locked in, a lot of times in the D-unit meetings, he walks in and says, ‘Stand up, everybody give somebody a hug, a high-five.’ It’s the same thing when you’re the head coach, what does this meeting need? What does the culture need to be? What does the atmosphere need to be?

Q: You mentioned changing things up out of the routine. How does that work?

MF: It’s the same thing when you’re running a linebacker group, and every day you have adapt and adjust to what’s necessary for the group. It’s not a head coaching thing, it’s a teaching thing, a leader thing. If you’re in charge of the room or the defensive unit or the offensive unit or you’re in charge of the team, it doesn’t matter; you have to understand what is needed for that group for that day. And if you didn’t like what you got the day before, you better change some things up to get a different outcome.

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