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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Gets Boost From Inexperienced-Yet-Talented Players Ahead of No. 5 Clemson

October 31, 2022
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Notre Dame (5-3) will host No. 5 Clemson (8-0) in South Bend on Saturday. It’s an opportunity for coach Marcus Freeman to pick up a signature win in Notre Dame Stadium after unfortunate home losses to Marshall (4-4) and Stanford (3-5).

The Irish are riding high heading into the matchup after back-to-back double-digit wins over UNLV (4-4) and No. 16 Syracuse (6-2). Just as important, a few inexperienced players with NFL talent put together season-best performances against the Orange, which could pay dividends against the Tigers.

Practice Makes Perfect

Jordan Botelho flashed elite potential as a pass rusher against No. 16 Syracuse. He left JMA Wireless Stadium on Saturday afternoon with two sacks, a quarterback hit and a pressure on just 10 pass-rush opportunities.

At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he’s an agile, passionate and violent football player. 

“You saw his ability to rush the passer,” Freeman said. “He's a physical football player.”

Prior to Saturday, Botelho had underperformed in South Bend. As Notre Dame’s highest-ranked defensive recruit in 2020, he’s played just 32 defensive snaps all season, including a season-high 17 in a 26-21 loss to Marshall.

Clearly, he has the talent to help the team, but throughout much of his career, his effort and focus in leading up to the game haven’t matched his abilities. 

That changed last week.

“Jordan had a great week of practice, and he got the opportunity to play in the game,” Freeman said. “With that opportunity, he was productive, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this week. The message will be the same thing: you’re playing time will be determined by how you practice.”

Botelho also backs up two of Notre Dame's most valuable and experienced defenders in pre-season All-American Isaiah Foskey and fifth-year senior Justin Ademilola. 

But Freeman enforces his stance at all 22 starting positions, no matter the depth. 

Sophomore Deion Colzie snagged 3 receptions for 44 yards on Saturday. He played a season-high 30 snaps after averaging 3.3 plays per game previously.

At 6-foot-5, he provides Notre Dame with a one-on-one matchup nightmare the Irish desperately need in a boundary receiver, but no matter how valuable his skillset is, playing time will correlate with what he shows in practice.

"I'm proud of him because it's a reflection of practice,” Freeman said of Colzie. “Everything I keep saying is you build confidence in practice and he had a great week of practice. For him to go out and have a couple of catches and make some plays and get a little bit more playing time, it reinforces the things I say.”

Estime Bounces Back

Running back Audric Estime led Notre Dame with 123 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against Syracuse. It was his second 100-yard rushing performance of the season.

Among offensive skill players, he still leads the Irish in total offense with 624 yards and in scoring with eight touchdowns, but usage declined recently due to ball security issues. He fumbled three times in Notre Dame's previous four contests, which resulted in 8 carries against Stanford and 3 against UNLV.

Even as in-game fumbles mounted, the coaching staff remained confident in Estime’s abilities. 

“It’s really important as a coach to make sure your players really know you believe in them,” Freeman said. “That’s the one thing that never wavered with Audric, the belief in him being productive and the things he can do as a running back.”

Like Botelho and Colzie, Estime had to prove he could hold onto the ball in practice to earn his in-game opportunities. 

But effort has never been an issue for Estime, so the coaching staff adapted its practice drills to reinforce ball security. 

“We’re insane if we don’t change the things we do in practice to get the results we want,” Freeman said. “This week in practice, we did some different things in terms of ball security with Audric and all the running backs. Coach [Deland] McCullough brought some different ideas that were really good. It’s going to be continuous.”

Now Notre Dame should get ample use out of its most productive offensive weapon against Clemson, which has the No. 7 rush defense in the country. That is, assuming Estime’s strong ball security continues throughout the week.

Freeman with Golden Opportunity Against Clemson

Notre Dame holds multiple notable victories in Freeman’s first full season as Notre Dame’s head coach:

- On Sept. 24, the Irish hand North Carolina (7-1), the nation’s current No. 17 team, its lone loss of the season, 45-32. 

- Notre Dame set the tone early in a 28-20 win against No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas the following weekend.

- Last Saturday, the Irish blew out No. 16 Syracuse in the JWA Wireless Center, 41-27

But none of those victories would impact the Fighting Irish quite like defeating an undefeated No. 5 Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 5.

“What would a win like that do for our program?” Freeman said. “It’s going to help us gain confidence in what we’re doing, who we are.”

Now, that doesn’t mean Freeman’s success hinges on a victory over the Tigers. Instead, it would mean that his ability to adapt to schematic and personnel issues in season paid off in a big way.

“I have a belief in what we're doing,” Freeman said. “What I’ve learned in these eight games is that it’s never like you planned. You have those bumps in the road that you have to figure out and really learn from as a leader. This is what you thought you should do as a leader. Now how should you adjust, and not just trust the process? How do you fix it to get the results that you want? 

“Would a win versus Clemson help me build confidence in the things we do? Absolutely. That’s what victories do. “

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