Marcus Freeman adjusts coaching mindset as spring football practice continues for Irish

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — A scary moment took place near the end of Saturday’s two-hour practice at Notre Dame when sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles crumpled to the ground. 

Senior safety DJ Brown delivered a solid upper-body hit as he broke up a pass attempt on a shallow crossing route during a live contact period. A delay of several minutes ensued as Styles received attention from team trainers and his teammates gathered around in silence. 

Eventually, Styles was able to walk off without assistance after having the wind knocked out of him, but he made it clear he was not pleased with Brown. 

Irish coach Marcus Freeman admittedly held his breath after that incident. He spoke to the team as a whole about it at the end of practice. 

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“It’s a physical group that I’m trying to continue to teach them exactly how we want them to practice,” Freeman said after Practice No. 5 this spring. “You can’t just tee off on each other all the time.”

In moving from defensive coordinator to a first-time head coach, Freeman noted the shift in his mindset. Rather than primarily watching one side of the ball and rooting for havoc, he now must find ways to bring along the entire roster. 

Notre Dame wide receiver Lorenzo Styles (21) during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

“It’s hard because I’m trying to push the competitiveness but also being able to take care of each other,” Freeman said. “We’ve gone from attack mode just being on defense – we have to be dominant – to how do you take care of your team? How do we practice to the standard we have to practice to but take care of each other?”

Chris Tyree out with ankle sprain

Senior wide receiver Joe Wilkins and super senior safety Houston Griffith also had to leave Saturday’s practice with head athletic trainer Rob Hunt. 

Wilkins, who has dealt with a series of lower leg injuries during his career, was fine after having his leg “rolled up on,” according to Freeman, but didn’t return to practice. Neither did Griffith, who needed an ice pack for his upper right leg during the final 30 minutes or so. 

Running back Chris Tyree, who also is the main kickoff returner, watched Saturday’s practice in shorts after turning his ankle this week. He was held out as a precaution and should return soon.  

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Sophomore receiver Deion Colzie recently emerged from concussion protocol and wore a red bib over his jersey as he took part in non-contact drills. His helmet hit the ground during one of the first two practices, but he should be a full participant by Tuesday’s session, Freeman said. 

Linebacker JD Bertrand, the 2021 tackles leader who is coming off January surgery on his left wrist, continues to be limited. 

Freshman cornerback Jayden Bellamy is still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in the first practice of the spring.

Ol' Zack (Martin) is back in town

Zack Martin, All-Pro offensive lineman with the Dallas Cowboys, was among the visitors at Saturday's practice. 

While Martin had a chance to visit with Harry Hiestand, his old line coach at Notre Dame, several participants in Friday’s Pro Day stuck around to offer their on- and off-field insights to the players hoping to replace them. 

Among those spotted were former Irish quarterback Jack Coan, nose tackle Kurt Hinish, safety Kyle Hamilton and placekicker Jonathan Doerer. 

“You’ve got one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL coming back to really spend time with coach Hiestand but also our players,” Freeman said of Martin. “That tells you instantly the credibility coach Hiestand has, and I think it’s been amazing. He’s not the only former player to come around.”

Freeman has made it a priority to reconnect with former Irish players and invite them back into the fold. Under Brian Kelly, former Notre Dame greats weren’t seen as much around the program. 

“They built this place,” Freeman said. “For any person to come in here and act like this is about one person, you’re crazy.  It’s about the people that have come and led and built Notre Dame to the place it is. This is their home and it will always be their home. I want to make sure it’s clearly communicated that they’re always welcome back here.”

Evaluating the quarterback battle 

Quarterback hopefuls Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne continue to split first-team work through five practices. 

Another red-zone heavy session on Saturday saw Buchner struggle early with his throwing accuracy before rallying late, especially with his RPO reads. 

Conor Ratigan, son of the team orthopedic surgeon, made a leaping reception in the corner of the end zone on a well-placed Buchner pass, prompting a noisy celebration as his teammates rushed to congratulate him.  

Both Buchner and Pyne scrambled in for touchdowns. 

“It’s so hard sometimes to evaluate them,” Freeman said. “As a defensive guy, you look for touchdowns and you look for freaking interceptions. But it’s decision-making. That’s the thing i hear sitting with coach Rees in meetings with those guys. Did he make the right decision? That’s the number one thing.” 

The second-biggest demand, Freeman said, is avoiding turnovers.

Kyren has a fan in Mel Kiper Jr.  

Kyren Williams beamed after Friday’s Pro Day when he heard he has a big believer in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. 

Raw speed isn’t one of Williams’ top attributes, but he checks many other boxes NFL teams look for in their running backs. Kiper noted NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith ran a 4.6-ish time in the 40-yard dash decades ago. 

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“I didn’t know that,” Williams said after cutting his 40 time from 4.65 at the NFL Scouting Combine to 4.54 on Friday. “That’s fire. I did see the post that (Kiper) had me as a top-five back.”

Kiper said Williams is “underrated” during a media conference call on Wednesday. 

“People are going to look at that 40 time, and (it) doesn't matter,” Kiper said. “I don't care about 40 times for running backs. The quickness, the instincts, the vision, the breaking tackles, the blocking, the catching (are what matters).” 

Kyren Williams runs a cone drill during Notre Dame’s NFL Pro Day event on Friday, March 25, 2022, in South Bend.

Kiper said he planned to keep his fourth-round projection for Williams, coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. 

“Kyren Williams is a good football player, so I'm not going to change my grade on him,” Kiper said. “I think he should be a fourth-round pick.”

Kevin Austin is a late bloomer

It’s not exactly “draft helium,” as they call it, but former Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. continues to open eyes after a strong showing at the combine. 

Kiper projects Austin to go on Day 3 of the NFL Draft, likely in the fourth or fifth round. 

“I think Kevin Austin Jr. has moved up,” Kiper said on the conference call. “He eliminated most of the drops and became much more consistent, the kind of go-to guy (in 2021). Throw it up and he went and got it. He was able to ‘high point’ the football. He's certainly got the ability to beat you down the field vertically.”

Austin has just one year of starter-level production in college after multiple foot surgeries and off-field issues. 

“The consistency is still evolving,” Kiper said. “But he's a work in progress and he came a long way this year.”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him at mberardino@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.