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Freeman enters Blue-Gold Game with high expectations, again

| Friday, April 21, 2023

Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Marcus Freeman celebrates his 3rd win as the team’s head coach in Notre Dame’s 28-20 victory over the BYU Cougars.

Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman began the 2022 season with high expectations placed upon him.

Though the newly-minted head coach had lost his first game to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish had all the momentum in the world. The team had just been ranked fifth in the preseason AP Poll and had a chance to upend Ohio State in Columbus, potentially eliminating a fellow College Football Playoff hopeful and giving Freeman his first signature win.

And as some of the Notre Dame student body gathered on South Quad, squinting through the light of the early September sun, Freeman’s effect on the student body was apparent. Anytime he appeared on the broadcast, those present gave a deafening cheer, even louder than when then-sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner completed a 54-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, Jr.

As Freeman prowled the sideline, the Irish built a narrow 10-7 lead in the first half, seemingly on their way to doing the impossible. Then Ohio State came roaring back to life, scoring 14 unanswered points and earning a comeback victory.

The next week, however, promised to be different. The No. 8 Irish played host to Marshall, a Sun Belt team they were favored to beat by more than 20. Instead, the Irish lost by five as Buchner injured his shoulder.

Notre Dame seemingly turned their season around when they strung together three wins, but that was followed by a 14-16 loss to Stanford at home. After that, Notre Dame went on a winning streak that included Freeman’s first signature win when the Irish shocked No. 4 Clemson (again).

And though Notre Dame lost to USC on the road as Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams removed all doubt that he was worthy of winning the Heisman, a Gator Bowl victory allowed Freeman to end an up-and-down year on a high note.

Now, as Freeman begins his second season as head coach of the Irish, he again finds himself up against high expectations.

The arrival of graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman has elevated Notre Dame’s ceiling, and at this weekend’s Blue-Gold game, all eyes will be on the duel between Hartman and Buchner.

And while Freeman might be in a similar situation as last year, much has changed around the head coach.

For one, he will be without last year’s play-caller, Tommy Rees. The former Notre Dame offensive coordinator left for the same position at Alabama in February.

Now, Freeman will lean on the newly-promoted Gerad Parker, who previously served as tight ends coach. Meanwhile, Gino Guidugli replaces Rees as quarterbacks coach. Veteran offensive line coach Harry Hiestand also parted ways with the program, retiring after 40 years of coaching. He was replaced by Joe Rudolph, who was the offensive line coach at Virginia Tech last year.

The significant turnover has caused some concerns outside of the program, especially with Rees departing and quarterback Drew Pyne transferring to Arizona State. Freeman, however, is not worried about the changes at all.

“Most of [the coaching changes] are on the offensive side of the ball, and so really, I am trying to stay out of the way. They have been together a lot and met a lot. And really, you got to meet to get everybody on the same page, but a lot of it is that cohesion, is that ability to view these guys as teammates,” Freeman said. “It’s been really good, and I’ve been in there a little bit. And then we have our staff meetings to make sure everyone understands our culture, understands our expectations.”

Now that Freeman has spent a full year as the head coach of the Irish, he is beginning to leave his mark on the program, starting with how the team conducts its spring practices.

“For me, it’s more looking at ways to enhance the practice structure,” Freeman said. “This year, I kind of said, ‘Let’s look back at last year’s practice one and look at the progression.’ I am looking at the structure of how we practice and really looking for ways to enhance it, ultimately, so they can perform better on Saturdays.”

However Freeman changes the structure of his practices, the ultimate goal of the team’s spring sessions remains the same.

“We have to find ways to practice at a high level, but also develop our depth and be able to roll guys in there and get them really good reps,” Freeman said. “It is a process to get to where we want to go.”

Freeman does note that spring practices have a different feel to them than those of the regular season, as the Irish are primarily focused on improvement and self-scouting.

“That’s what’s the beauty of this thing,” he said. “We are not really preparing to win a game on April 22, but really, you’re saying, ‘Okay, where can you look at your roster and positions?’ and say, ‘Hey, we need an addition here, and we need it at some spot to have some depth.’”

The spring practices have allowed the Irish to look inward and focus on team improvement. And Freeman would not have it any other way.

“That’s what we all need to focus on, Marcus Freeman, too,” he said. “Focus on improvement, not praise, not criticism.”

This season, the Irish will face a schedule equally as daunting as last year’s. The team will face the three-headed monster of Ohio State, USC and Clemson, three squads with strong chances of winning their conference and making the College Football Playoff. And the team begins its season in Dublin when they take on a storied rival in Navy.

Despite all the external noise about the quarterback competition, the coaching changes and the general noise that comes from being the head coach of Notre Dame football, Freeman is growing more comfortable in his role. But he knows that there is still work to be done, from his incoming freshman to his potential starting quarterback, to his coaches and of course, himself.

“Yeah, I am a lot more comfortable in my position,” he said. “But at the same time, I have a tremendous amount of work to do, like everyone else in the program.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Thomas Zwiller

I am a junior at Holy Cross College. I love covering the NCAAF, NFL, and all things Holy Cross. Comment with any questions, statements of outrage or the like, I will try my best to reply.

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