Notre Dame’s first practice had just ended.
It was a two-hour session where Notre Dame pumped through the crowd noise and battled the humidity.
And seconds into practice, Notre Dame gathered around head coach Marcus Freeman and he let them know the effort wasn’t good enough. Freeman used a few choice words to demand more from his team from a preparation standpoint as a few players failed to train due to overheating.
It was a message Freeman needed to send to set the bar as a trip to Ohio State is four weeks away.
“It must be tough,” Freeman said in his post-practice press conference. “It doesn’t change. We don’t change what we do. It’s going to be hard. We had a few guys who couldn’t finish training today and it’s their job to make sure they’re available for training. It’s the coach’s job to make sure he protects the player.
“I was trying to send a message to these players: ‘Hey, whatever you need to do to make sure you’re available for training. We took a few guys out because of the heat. Whatever you have to do to make sure you’re available, we have to do it because we don’t change.
Freeman played down the Ohio State game this offseason, but now is the critical moment and every move has been calculated — including the message to his team.
“I believe in what we have planned during this fall camp,” Freeman explained. “I think that’s what we have to be ready to do. And we are not going to change. We’re always going to watch and review and debrief and say, ‘Is there anything we can do to improve?’ But the length of training, the effort, the way we are going to challenge our players, it’s not going to change. If they want us to step down, it won’t happen. They must continue to do whatever it takes to make sure they are ready to go.
The Irish weren’t in the pads, but several 11v11 periods were filled with crowd noise coming through the loudspeakers. It was by design. Sure, that will help prepare Notre Dame for The Horseshoe, but Freeman had another reason he wanted the noise.
“Crowd noise is nothing else that I want the coaches to let the players play,” Freeman said. “It was really a trigger. When you’re inside you can’t hear anything. Outside they can scream a bit. But I want the coaches to let these guys go from day one, learn how to communicate the with each other, solving problems without the coaches on the field.
Outside of a period of 11-on-11 scripted drives, Notre Dame ran 1-on-1, 7-on-7, and 11-on-11 in the red zone, which was also expected.
“We started in the red zone, it was very intentional,” Freeman explained. “I think Al Golden is the one who said in the NFL that they did this to really work the long lasting skill guys. I’m not trying to take it easy, but it’s a progression in terms of how long our expansions and databases run. That’s what we started in the spring, we’ll start in the red zone and then we’ll work our way up to the middle of the field. That’s why we did this.
The red zone is an area Notre Dame needs to improve on as the Irish finished 32nd in the country last year in red zone attack.
It was a mixed bag on both sides of the ball, so if you’re Freeman, it’s something you want to see.
“It went back and forth,” Freeman said. “It was really good to see. I think the defense has depth and that’s something for me that was noticeable. The attack, we are not yet as deep as we would like. We will continue to improve up to this point. But he was good. You saw good things from attack, good things from defence.
Freeman also spent quite a bit of time on the offensive side of the ball this offseason. He attended Tommy Rees meetings with the quarterbacks and on Friday Freeman moved through every positional group on both sides of the ball.
The knowledge allowed Freeman to see the game from a different perspective and relate even more to his players.
“It’s been really good for me to spend a lot of time with the quarterbacks to see their progress,” Freeman said. I tell them all the time, ‘You’re going to be blamed if things don’t go well and it’s not always your fault.’
“Perfect example today was Tyler (Buchner) threw a ball. Looked like it was a bad pitch. I don’t know who was running the route, somehow didn’t run the route exactly I looked at Tyler and said, ‘Hey, that’s why you have to hold people accountable because from my perspective, I looked and it was a bad throw.’ No, it wasn’t a bad pitch. We have to make sure we’re on the right road. So a lot of things fall on the plate of these quarterbacks. That’s who I spend the most time with and that opened my eyes to see this from their point of view.
And speaking of the quarterback position, Freeman says it’s open competition. Buchner got most of the reps with the team’s first offense on Friday and the first-year head coach wants to name the starter as soon as possible.
“It’s a two-quarter battle right now between Tyler and Drew (Pyne),” Freeman said. “I think they all made great progress in the spring. Tyler has missed the last two practices. One was the spring game and practice before that. But, he had 13 very good practices. I thought both of these guys had really good springs. Then Steve (Angeli) and Ronnie (Powlus), those guys had good springs in terms of progression. But what you’ll see is Drew and Tyler going head-to-head. They will both get reps with ones. And again, when myself and Coach Rees and the offensive staff feel like it’s at a point where there’s a quarterback who’s shown us he’s the starter, we’ll name him.
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