Marcus Freeman settling in as Year 2 begins: Lessons from Notre Dame’s preseason camp


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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Notre Dame Fighting Irish put an official end to preseason camp on Saturday with a nearly 100-play scrimmage, an inflection point as the program shifts toward Navy in full. With two weeks until Dublin, the Irish are far from a finished project, both by design and by circumstance. But that’s different than saying Notre Dame is behind schedule heading into Marcus Freeman’s second season.

In fact, so much of the past two weeks have been informed by Freeman’s first year, from the recovery plans for playing in Ireland to how much he asked from the roster day-to-day in camp. It’s where Freeman feels more settled than last season’s succession of volatile swings as he learned on the job.

“Last year, I had a blueprint based on other individuals’ experiences being a head coach, right? I gathered my own ideas but I’d never done it,” Freeman said. “This year you can make enhancements based off your own personal experience.

“What I’ve done, really, is say, ‘OK, what things that I learned from being a head coach last year, what ways can you enhance and give your players a better chance to perform at the level we need them to?’ So, there’s no substitute for experience.”

If those are macro lessons, the Notre Dame head coach has picked up plenty of micro intel during the past 15 practices, too. There have been some surprising position battles and unexpected strengths. There’s a position seemingly stuck in neutral. And perhaps a quarterback situation that’s more than Sam Hartman. No, Notre Dame probably won’t have a grasp on what it is for another month as the Irish play their way into an identity.


Notre Dame football practice diary: One last long look before Navy opener

But Freeman already knows some of what’s coming, and not just because the offense won Saturday’s scrimmage by only turning the ball over once.

Here are the big lessons learned from Notre Dame’s preseason camp based on interviews, observations and sources.

Will stars matter at offensive guard?

Preseason camp opened with right guard Andrew Kristofic and left guard Billy Schrauth looking like solid bets to keep their positions into the season. Kristofic is the most experienced of the guard candidates, having started last year’s opener at Ohio State and most of the season prior. What he lacked in explosive mobility, Kristofic made up for with game reps. Schrauth was the opposite, a previous can’t-miss four-star recruit who former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand adored to the point that Schrauth made the travel roster and season’s end.

So much for that.

For the past week, Rocco Spindler has grabbed hold of the right guard job while Pat Coogan is a surprise leader at left guard. Spindler was a national prospect out of high school but languished on the bench last season, never getting a true sniff at time. Coogan felt like a developmental story, perhaps growing into a contributor by his senior year. Now both seem to have won jobs as Notre Dame moves out of camp.

“Rocco Spindler has been doing a heck of a job, had a really good camp. And Billy has, too,” Freeman said. “So, you want to have four guards, right? And I think right now we feel really good about three going in there. And I look forward to evaluating today’s scrimmage with coach (Joe) Rudolph and the offensive staff and saying, ‘OK, who’s going to be the third and fourth guard that we say can go into the game at any point?

“But man, I love the competition that they’re having. Nobody’s comfortable at those guard positions.”

Notre Dame should have a strong offensive line regardless of its guard play, which is how good Joe Alt and Blake Fisher have looked at tackle. Center Zeke Correll, who may have picked up a minor injury during the Saturday scrimmage, gives the Irish a reliable presence in the pivot, even if he lacks overwhelming size. And while the offense hasn’t always been explosive during camp, the run game has done enough to win over Freeman and the staff.

There’s legitimate defensive line depth

It’s still not clear if Notre Dame has a College Football Playoff-level pass rush, but the defensive line exceeded outside expectations the past two weeks. That’s especially true on the interior, where Jason Onye and Gabriel Rubio moved from depth options to legitimate contributors. Rubio got somewhat regular work last season with 184 total snaps, including a season-high 44 against Stanford. Onye saw action in just one game, the blizzard blowout of Boston College.

This fall they’ll both be asked to be 200-snap players at least. That idea felt like a potential tripwire last winter. Now? Notre Dame’s coaching staff welcomes it.

“They take after their coach (Al Washington). That’s a passionate dude, man,” Freeman said. “To coach with him, he is an energy provider. He’s a great football coach, but an energy provider.”

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Gabriel Rubio recorded 17 total tackles in 2022. (Matt Cashore / USA Today)

It’s fair for Freeman to credit Washington for the player development uptick after a debut season that felt inconclusive. Second-round pick Isaiah Foskey was good, but he didn’t always show in big moments before opting out of the bowl game. Rylie Mills appears set for a breakout season but got stuck between two positions, mastering neither. And the Ademilola twins (Jayson and Justin) battled injuries and inconsistencies. The defensive line was fine, it just felt like it could have been more.

Maybe this group can overachieve if Rubio and Onye do more than just back up Mills and Howard Cross. Defensive end remains a question, although Jordan Botelho, Junior Tuihalamaka and Josh Burnham have at least had moments at vyper end. At the other end, NaNa Osafo-Mensah and Javontae Jean-Baptiste should be solid.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s best pass rush will come up the middle.

Receivers playing catch up

If Chansi Stuckey didn’t know the perception of Notre Dame’s receivers before Friday, he did walking out of the Irish Athletics Center. That was the receiver group’s scheduled pass through the media gauntlet and the questions lobbed at the group were to be deflected more than they were supposed to be caught. Because when reporters start asking about outside expectations, distractions and even if any freshmen might help, well, it’s a sign that things aren’t going exactly to plan.

“If they’re here with not high expectations, we’ve got the wrong guy, first of all, OK?” Stuckey said. “So, we should have the best in the country at each position here and I think we’re getting to that at the receiver position.

“But you meet each guy where he is. You don’t want to put more expectations on him than other people do.”

Those expectations seem to have dropped the past two weeks as Notre Dame publicly and privately searches for a go-to receiver. One didn’t pop in last week’s open practice. Freeman didn’t stump for one after Saturday’s scrimmage either, where team sources indicated the two most impressive wideouts were freshmen Jaden Greathouse and Jordan Faison, who’s a walk-on. This isn’t how it was all supposed to look for Sam Hartman, although Jayden Thomas, Tobias Merriweather and Chris Tyree figure to start against Navy.

Can those three receivers deliver after a preseason camp that was more down than up? Of course. But that would mark a course change from the past two weeks for a position that lacks a true No. 1 (and perhaps No. 2) option.



Sam Hartman is giving Notre Dame the certainty it needed at QB

Backfield is more than Audric Estime

For a scrimmage that was supposed to mean something, the running game chose to play short-handed. With no utility to running Audric Estime into the group with a minor injury, Notre Dame chose to lean on its backup running backs on Saturday. They were good enough to power a run game that carried the offense to a scrimmage victory. And even that second-choice backfield was limited as Jadarian Price played only a series or two.

That’s where Devyn Ford and Jeremiyah Love took advantage.

“You saw them perform in the run game with Jeremiyah Love, Devyn Ford, Jadarian Price. Guys that haven’t proven it so much here yet,” Freeman said. “And you saw them perform in the run game, protection for the pass game. Today was great. But I hope this ain’t a peak for what we’re going to see in the future.”

Love provided one of the bigger flash plays of the scrimmage, taking a swing pass for a huge gain. The freshman from St. Louis looked like a sports car in shoulder pads when camp opened but picked up a minor knock that limited him last week in the open practice. While it’s not clear if he’s back to full speed, whatever speed he’s at was enough to impress on Saturday.  The Irish need at least three backs ready to go to have a depth chart durable enough for the season. It seems Notre Dame is there.

It’s worth noting that despite the interior defensive lineman impressing in camp, the run game can still thrive with various backs and different guard combinations. As much as Notre Dame might be trying to transition to more of a pass-friendly offense, the Irish attack hinges on the backs, line and blocking tight ends.

The question for offensive coordinator Gerad Parker may be more of how he takes advantage of that outlook, even with Hartman at quarterback. That might include running Hartman, who had a rushing touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.

Cornerback depth peaking

Could this be Notre Dame’s deepest cornerback group since … when exactly?

Freeman opened camp with a modest lament that the Irish needed to find a fourth corner after Cam Hart, Ben Morrison and Jaden Mickey. That slotted Clarence Lewis and Thomas Harper as the nickel/dime backs. Two weeks later, freshman Christian Gray has bubbled up into the two deep, not as a placeholder but as a legitimate contender for time.

“He’s had a really good camp,” Freeman said. “Chance Tucker has been down with an Achilles a little bit. And so, it’s gave Christian valuable reps versus really good wide outs. And I’ve seen him perform. And so, he’s really developed some trust in coach (Mike) Mickens and myself to say, ‘OK, hey, I can be the fourth corner.’”

Morrison and Hart are the unquestioned starters and Mickey has practiced more like the Uber-confident freshman of 18 months ago than the young athlete who struggled last training camp. Gray missed the end of spring practice following a knee procedure and started camp modestly before turning it on last week.

If Notre Dame can keep these four cornerbacks healthy, plus those two nickelbacks, the Irish should be able to mix and match with pass-heavy offenses in a way they couldn’t last season. That reality might not impact many game plans, but Ohio State and USC will be two of them.

(Top photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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