Story Poster
Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre - USA Today Sports
Notre Dame Football

Marcus Freeman ‘confident in the direction' of Notre Dame football following Sun Bowl win

December 31, 2023

Before the Sun Bowl, Xavier Watts filmed a video declaring his decision to return to Notre Dame for one more season. 

The senior safety walked to the outskirts of the El Paso, Texas, desert, donning a cowboy hat and western fringe vest. He looked to the horizon and said to himself, “It’s my last chance to find what I’ve been searching for,” as Wanted Dead or Alive echoed across the desert.

Watts then took a pick ax to sand as he dug up bricks of gold.

Apparently, that wasn’t what he was after. Seconds later, he made a declaration to return to South Bend for one more year.

No matter how cheesy the two-minute video may have seemed, retaining Watts provides Notre Dame with one of the best safeties in the country. Coach Marcus Freeman also said following the game that Vyper Jordan Botelho will come back for another season. 

That means the team’s projected first-string defense will boast 170 combined career starts even if Freeman doesn’t acquire any additional players via the transfer portal.

                                Notre Dame’s Current Projected Starters on Defense in 2024

Player Position Career Starts Career Snaps
Jordan Botelho Vyper 14 699
Howard Cross III Tackle 22 1,646
Rylie Mills Tackle 21 1,362

R.J. Oben

End 32 1,494
Drayk Bowen Mike - 72
Jaylen Sneed Will 1 270
Jack Kiser Rover 18 1,221
Ben Morrison Cornerback 19 1,231
Jaden Mickey Cornerback 3 499
Jordan Clark Nickel 23 1,856
Xavier Watts Safety 17 1,162
Adon Shuler Safety - 49

*Stats per Pro Football Focus.

“I’m confident in the direction of this football program,” Freeman said following his team’s 40-8 victory over No. 21 Oregon State, “with the guys that we’re bringing in, the guys we have, the coaches that we have on this staff. I’m really excited as we move forward.”

Heading into the Sun Bowl, the offense was decimated by injuries, which gave a number of inexperienced invaluable opportunities. 

“I kept trying to get them to understand was how important this game was for so many different reasons: The Sun Bowl. Ten wins. The chance for back-to-back bowl wins. This was a great opportunity against a good opponent. So, they owned it. They bought in. They prepared the way you have to prepare.”

Their buy-in led to an eye-popping 40 points against a quality Oregon State defense. Of the 13 offensive players to garner at least 21 snaps on Friday, each is eligible to return in 2024. 

“You have a lot of young guys,” Freeman said. “Guys who didn’t have the opportunity to play much all year get a chance to go play and compete. They really displayed the execution that you see in practice. Take Steve Angeli. 

“He’s a really good football player, and he’s shown that in practice. I’m just using him as an example, but we have some guys who are really good football players that didn’t get the opportunity to do that too much throughout the season because of the guys they had in front of them.”

Throw in the additions of Duke transfer quarterback Riley Leonard and a pair of big-play wideouts, and Notre Dame might just have the pieces to make a deep run in the first-ever 12-team College Football Playoffs. 

Of course, it’ll be extra important that Notre Dame makes the postseason next fall. 

Otherwise, December opt-outs and transfers could be even more significant than this year, when more than 20 players departed before the bowl game. 

“I think all postseason play is going to change now that you're talking about a 12-team playoff,” Freeman said. “We understand that and for those teams that don't make the 12-team playoff, you're gonna have to see how many guys you have available and guys that are going to be willing to play.”

On the bright side, Friday’s win could be fortuitous. The Fighting Irish last won the Sun Bowl in 2010, defeating Miami 33-17. Two seasons later, the program reached its first national title game appearance.

Freeman is hoping history repeats itself, only this time, he wants to compete for a championship in the season immediately following a victory in El Paso.

“(That) sounds good to me,” Freeman said. “We just don’t want an appearance, we want to win it. This is an unbelievable bowl, and the production that was put on this week, you understand why the Sun Bowl is so historic. 

“As I said yesterday, we are honored to be a part of this bowl game. It was first class, and we’re grateful for this chance.”

subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.