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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Notebook: Playing Freshmen, Instilling Confidence in Grupe

November 14, 2022

Notre Dame returned to the practice field on Sunday after nearly blowing a 22-point halftime lead against Navy. 

For as chaotic as the second half proved to be, the coaching staff also got the chance to play several young players, including a handful of true freshmen. 

In some cases, that may have hurt the Fighting Irish on Saturday but the experience gained should pay dividends for Notre Dame in the future. 

Missing JD Bertrand

Middle linebacker JD Bertrand missed Saturday’s game due to a “groin area” injury. Freshman Junior Tuihalamaka made his first career start as a result and split reps through the contest with sophomore Prince Kollie. 

Kollie flashed at times. He recorded seven tackles and received the second-highest Pro Football Focus grade among Fighting Irish defenders. Tuihalamaka struggled and received the lowest grade on the team. 

Either way, it was a tough position for two young players to find themselves in, especially for Tuihalamaka as a true freshman.

“It's really difficult when it's your first time facing the triple option,” Freeman said. “You can't simulate it in practice.”

Navy ran for 255 yards and two touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry. 

Midshipmen fullback Daba Fofana ran for 133 yards and a score, which included individual gains of 36 and 50 yards.

“The minute you think it's an inside zone or dive play, the next thing you know there's a puller,” Freeman said. “Sometimes it's hard to see the puller because it happens so fast. It was a good learning experience for those two and Marist.”

Notre Dame fans have been frustrated with Bertrand at times this season, but most should be relieved after last weekend that the senior linebacker practiced on Sunday and is expected to play against Boston College on Saturday. 

“We missed JD,” Freeman said. “He's played against the triple option, he knows exactly how to fit it but those other two guys stepped in and they did a good job.”

Getting Freshmen Experience

Two freshmen made their Notre Dame debuts on Saturday: running back Gi'Bran Payne and linebacker Jaylen Sneed.

Payne served as the off-returner opposite Chris Tyree on kickoff return, filling in for wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. who entered the transfer portal last week. 

He never had the opportunity to return a kick, but the freshman running back earned the opportunity by producing in practice. 

Sneed played nine snaps and filled a specific role on the defense.

“When they brought in an extra tight end or O-linemen, alignment, we brought in an extra backer and took off a corner just to match personnel,” Freeman said. “That was his role. When he went heavy personnel, we went heavy personnel and he was going to go play man-to-man on the tight end.”

Freeman isn’t sure if Sneed or Payne would have played if the team weren’t without Wilkins or Bertrand, but he saw an opportunity to play both without burning a year of eligibility. 

“They can play in the last four games and still redshirt,” Freeman said. “That was something that we took into consideration. Now that we have four games left, they haven't played yet this year, and they have the ability to help us. It's always that double-edged sword early in the season. 

“Yeah, they could help us but are they going to play enough where you want to burn redshirt? If we can hold them, let's hold. Now we don't have to hold them.”

Their experience on Saturday also helps the Fighting Irish in recruiting, as does the play of freshmen cornerbacks Ben Morrison and Jaden Mickey, both of which have played throughout the 2022 season. 

Freeman and his staff will never promise early playing time, but top prospects want to know that they’ll have the chance to earn it. 

“The guys were recruiting all want to come in and start,” Freeman said. “That's the reality of it. They all think they will and they all want to. We have the ability to show them if you're good enough, you're going to play at Notre Dame. That's exciting, too, because that's all you want to see. Do I have the ability to be this guy?”

Freeman Still Confident in Grupe 

Notre Dame kicker Blake Grupe started the season strong. He made five of his first six field goals, including a 47-yard boot in the fourth quarter of a 24-17 win over Cal. 

But over the last four weeks, Grupe has missed four straight field goals from at least 38 yards out. That includes a missed 45-yard attempt against Navy.

“We have the utmost confidence in Blake Grupe,” Freeman said. “I have to make sure he continues to know that. Did I expect him to make that first field goal? Absolutely, that's why we kicked.  We could have went for it. I think it was fourth and two. I said no. Let's go get the guaranteed points, but we missed it.”

The staff won’t be afraid to send Grupe on to the field again. They’ll just expect a different result.

“As I told him yesterday, ‘I've got that utmost confidence in you. There's going to be another opportunity for you to go out there and kick a field goal, and I have 100 percent faith that day that you're going to make it but don't make me a liar,’” Freeman said. “Grupe is going to continuously work out at it, and I'm excited for the next opportunity.”

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