Spring was important for this Irish football program, but now that it's over, what next?
SOUTH BEND — At 3:40 on a summer-like Saturday afternoon, Marcus Freeman double-checked his immediate schedule with a staffer — “We good?" — before stepping out of the Notre Dame Stadium interview room.
Outside the stadium gates, fans stood two and three deep. On a May-like day, it felt a lot like September. Football mattered around these parts. Really mattered.
Freeman exited that interview room and entered the next phase of his first season as the Notre Dame head football coach, when there always is something next waiting — a presser, a meeting, a conference. After 15 spring practices that ended in a “game” for the ages — if there is such a notion, even if it was won with no time remaining for the first time maybe … ever — it really gets interesting for Freeman.
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Here comes the biggest football gap of his first season. No staff hirings. No practice plans. No film to watch from that day's work. There’s been plenty of momentum generated around these parts for this program since December. Can’t lose it in June and July and August.
For the past three months, way back to early January, this college football program has been as open as open could be. Name another that didn’t treat access as a four-letter word. Or taboo. It was as open as it ever has been. Want to talk to the dozen mid-year freshman enrollees and graduate transfers? Of course we could, even if that would’ve been unheard of and unlikely in previous seasons.
How about every member of Freeman’s staff, most of whom never have coached at Notre Dame before spring ball started. Yep, get with them as well. When spring practice rolled around, the university rolled out several members of each position group to meet with the media. Two and three and sometimes four guys at a time.
For the media, it was like Thanksgiving dinner every other day. Like you do for Thanksgiving; we often ate too much.
It was all about the new energy, the “vibe” around a program that if you read between the lines, had seemingly gone stagnant under former coach Brian Kelly. What ever happened to that guy anyway?
The Irish won and won a lot — 54 games over the previous five seasons — but there was something about everything that just made it … kind of there.
This staff worked overtime this spring to rectify that. Now, though, it kind of fades for the next few months and maybe, for good. From here on it will be about winning football games, not mid-week pressers.
On Saturday, Freeman stepped to the podium in a post-game interview area to answer questions about what transpired over the previous four quarters of an actual game for the first time as a head coach. Back in January, when he was the one in charge of everything in a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, Freeman and several players participated only in a post-game presser via Zoom.
Saturday was his first postgame face-to-face with the media. His first chance to answer questions about the quarterbacks, about possible injuries, about the spring big picture, about what now is clearly his program.
There was a lot to like, not only Saturday, when the game came down to the final play as freshman Steve Angeli, under center for the first time as a college player, scrambled 10 yards and dived into the near left pylon as time expired to give the Gold a 13-10 victory, but the entire 15 spring practices.
Even the postgame was a big swing from the past — two freshmen — two true freshmen, summoned to meet the media. Guess a backup senior defensive lineman or seldom used wide receiver, both likely candidates (suspects?) in previous springs, weren’t available. Shocker.
Notre Dame was without a host of should-be starters, including sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, who stumbled down the last stair and turned an ankle at the Guglielmino Complex earlier in the week. So, no Buchner. No JD Bertrand. No Cam Hart. No Jarrett Patterson, all veterans and all main guys and all out this spring with assorted injuries, but all expected back in the fall.
When everything should look a lot different and maybe even feel a lot different.
As open and honest as Freeman and his staff were this spring, that likely goes away as the 2022 season and the opener at Ohio State nears. Access likely will decrease. So too will the openness. It's just the nature of the college football beast. And beat. Freeman will do his best to accommodate everyone (i.e., us media) but the season will take precedent, as it should.
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The next time Freeman stands in front of the media after a game, there may be a whole lot more tension and fewer smiles in the room than Saturday.
The serious stuff doesn’t start for a few more months. In between, there will be a chance for the players to return home before convening back on campus for summer school, which starts in mid-June.
The cycle never stops for Freeman, who reiterated what his next focus is, maybe starting as early as Sunday, when the game film has been viewed and the hundreds of former players go back to their lives away from that campus.
“Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.”
Recruiting future guys, and maybe even recruiting some of the current ones who still have a chance to decide that yeah, maybe it’s best they look elsewhere. That’s just college football. As feel-good as everything has seemed since December, not everyone will share the sentiment. Some guys may leave. Most will stay.
Freeman admitted he learned something about this group this spring, something that they showed in the game’s final drive, when the Gold team either had to score, or go back up the tunnel losers.
“They respond to being challenged,” Freeman said. “They’ve got to be challenged.”
The guys in gold (OK, white) sure were Saturday. Angeli, who completed 11-of-13 for 180 yards and a score, made sure they went out winners.
“You,” Freeman said, “couldn’t script it better a better way.”
The final play marked not only the end of spring, but the beginning of the great unknown. It will be fascinating to see where this program, the players, the staff, everyone, go from here. Nobody outside Notre Dame will pick Notre Dame come that Labor Day Saturday. That’s OK. That’s still too many days away, but walking into the snake pit of Ohio Stadium will be here before anyone knows it.
Can’t wait. For this head coach. For this staff. For this team. For this program.
“This group,” Freeman said, “has a lot of momentum right now.”
Let's see where it takes them. Takes everyone.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.