Notebook: Notre Dame football practices start with competitive edge under Marcus Freeman

Tyler James
ND Insider
New head coach Marcus Freeman chats with OL Blake Fisher (54) during warmups at Notre Dame football practice for the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, inside the Irish Athletics Center at Notre Dame in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa dipped his head down to make sure the microphone picked up his voice clearly. 

“Offense is currently 0-2,” the Notre Dame defensive end said Sunday afternoon following the team’s second bowl practice on campus led by new head coach Marcus Freeman, who implemented competitive one-on-one sessions to start practice pitting the offense against the defense. 

“So take it easy on J-Patt when he gets up here.” 

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Tagovailoa-Amosa and center Jarrett Patterson, both captains, were tapped with the responsibility of representing Notre Dame’s players when speaking with reporters Sunday. The Irish have officially started their new era with Freeman leading practices Saturday and Sunday, but the players have quickly learned that Freeman hasn’t changed much. 

“He just remains the same person every day,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “He comes to work. We have a philosophy that we instilled across the team: challenge everything, unit strength and competitive advantage. That’s his approach and that’s his demeanor in every practice.  

“He comes ready to work. He wants everybody to get better and take that next step in our game. That’s his mindset.” 

That starts with the opening session of practice following warmups. On Saturday, it was a one-on-one drill for the offensive and defensive linemen. Sunday it was a matchup between receivers and defensive backs in the end zone. 

Whichever side loses more reps has to run from sideline to sideline and back before the next period of practice begins. 

“It's nothing more than continuing to develop that competitive spirit — that mindset that everything in our power is to win,” Freeman said. “If I got a chance to make a play, I got to make the play.

"That's what I tried to reiterate to the team (Sunday): it's about when your opportunity presents itself, you got to make the play. That's all I'm trying to create during those periods."   

Freeman, who stepped into the role of head coach for the first time since his coaching career started as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010, still has plenty to learn about being a head coach from even the most basic of levels during practice. 

"Just trying to figure out where the heck to go,” Freeman said. “I find myself running to the defensive side sometimes like, ‘Oh, I can't go back there.’ We were doing field goal (Sunday), and I was going behind the defense. That's where I always go. And I said, ‘No, I have to go behind the offense.’  

“For me, it’s now you can't cheer for the defense. You can't want the defense to win every rep. No, I want the offensive guys to have some great reps. I know Myron might not like it, but it's really good.  

“You just want to see guys playing fast. You want to see guys finishing. That's what my eyes have been on. ‘Hey, are we finishing? Are we running back to the huddle? Are we covering the ball down? Are guys playing physical? Are we playing on our feet?’ Those are the things that I'm looking at right now and still figuring out.” 

Freeman hasn’t had to dole out many new responsibilities, thanks to most of Notre Dame’s coaching staff staying in place at least through the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 when the No. 5 Irish (11-1) take on No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2).

Former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly plucked away only special teams coordinator Brian Polian from the Irish on-field coaching staff to join him at LSU. 

The special teams responsibilities have been handed to senior defensive analyst Nick Lezynski, a former Irish walk-on who has been on staff since 2018. 

“He's done a great job,” Freeman said. “I know he met with coach Polian before coach Polian left. Again, like I told Nick, it's about simplicity. It's about let's get lined up and make sure everybody knows what we're doing and let's play fast.

"And he's done a great job in terms of just diving in and making sure he can teach it the way they've been taught.” 

Lezynski has also been Freeman’s right-hand man leading the linebackers, a position Freeman was in charge of as defensive coordinator. 

“He’s taken a big leadership role in the linebacker room,” Freeman said. “He has been with me all year. He's been in every linebacker meeting, so he knows exactly the progression that we have in our linebacker room. He's been doing a great job in our individual periods.” 

Life after Hamilton and Williams 

Notre Dame played each of its last five games without All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. That won’t necessarily lessen the impact of him choosing to sit out the Fiesta Bowl and declare for the 2022 NFL Draft, but at least the Irish are familiar with dealing with his absence. 

Playing without starting running back Kyren Williams, who made the same decision as Hamilton, will be a bit of a different story. Williams, who lead the Irish in rushing with 1,002 yards and 14 touchdowns and finished the regular season tied for second on the team with 42 receptions, started all 24 games for Notre Dame since the beginning of the 2020 season. 

“There’s only one Kyren Williams, and we have to replace his production,” Freeman said. “That’s been a challenge. I said, ‘Hey, you don’t need to be Kyren Williams, but we have to replace his production.’” 

Freshman running back Audric Estime (24) eyes the ball during Notre Dame football practice for the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, inside the Irish Athletics Center at Notre Dame in South Bend.

The Irish should have capable backups with sophomore Chris Tyree (50 carries for 204 yards and one TD) and freshman Logan Diggs (43 carries for 201 yards and three TDs) leading the running attack. Even fellow freshman Audric Estime showed flashes of potential with six carries for 61 yards late in the Georgia Tech victory on Nov. 20. 

“They’ve done a good job,” Freeman said. “Seeing Logan out there, he’s done a great job, obviously, just being a freshman. I told him, “I don’t consider you being a freshman anymore.’ He’s an experienced guy throughout the course of this year. 

“Tyree has done a great job. He brings a different element of speed to the backfield. And then even Audric. Audric’s done a great job. He’s a big, physical running back. He was punishing a couple of people (Saturday), so it’s good to have that three-man crew going out there, kind of sharing the load.” 

Freeman said neither Hamilton nor Williams asked for his input in their decisions, but he told them he 100% supported them when each spoke to him individually. 

“No matter what they decide, they're always going to have the support of us,” Freeman said. “They know that they're a part of what we've done and what we're going to continue to do moving forward. Those are special guys that have done a lot of stuff for this program. I wish them all the best.” 

Both players will be welcomed to join the team on the sidelines at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., Freeman said. They have yet to indicate if they plan on doing so. 

No other Notre Dame players have told Freeman that they intend to sit out the game. 

“Everybody that's out there on the practice field is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to finish the season off as champions,” Freeman said. “I said that in the first team meeting: ‘Hey, if you're in this room, you have to understand we have one mission to finish the season as champions.’ These guys have been all committed. They've done everything we have asked of them.” 

One last game for Tagovailoa-Amosa 

Tagovailoa-Amosa doesn’t plan on returning to Notre Dame for a sixth season. 

Though Tagovailoa-Amosa could use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for student-athletes who played during the COVID-19 pandemic last season, the Fiesta Bowl will be his last wearing a gold helmet for the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (95) gets past Jordan Mason (27) to score on a fumble recovery during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Tagovailoa-Amosa, whose father died in August, started to process the finality of so many moments he continues to experience this season. 

“You’re just taking it one day at a time,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “This place, this university, has done so much for me and my family. When you sit back and you reflect on your time here, everyone’s going to say the same thing: ‘Man, it came so fast.’  

“But in games like this, the biggest thing for me is to take each practice and appreciate it one moment at a time. It’s funny you say that, because coming out to today’s practice, it just dawned on me that this is going to be my last few practices with the team. This is going to be my last game wearing my Notre Dame football jersey.  

“The biggest thing for me is the amount of gratitude that I have for this place. It will stay with me forever. There’s things thing that Notre Dame community, the fan base, I can’t — you guys know the things I’ve been through this year. This place, man, is so special.” 

Injury updates 

Freshman offensive tackle Blake Fisher might be closer to being able to play in the Fiesta Bowl than junior linebacker Marist Liufau, but both were on the practice field Sunday for the Irish. 

Fisher, who tore the meniscus in his right knee during the season opener at Florida State, hasn’t played since he started his first college game. He handled a bigger workload in Sunday’s practice than Freeman expected. 

Trainer Rob Hunt told Freeman before practice that Fisher would probably be limited to individual periods of practice, but Fisher was able to handle some team reps as well. 

“I don’t know if he’ll be full-go released for the game yet, but to see him out there during team reps is extremely encouraging,” Freeman said. “It was good having him out there.” 

Liufau, who suffered a broken leg and dislocation of his right ankle in preseason practice in August, likely has a longer rehab ahead of him, but that didn’t stop him from taking part in some individual linebacker drills Sunday. 

“He just brings the energy to our entire team, but he's not ready,” Freeman said. “It's good to have him out there. He's not doing any team reps. He's doing some individual stuff.

"He's not to the point where we would even think he could play, but it's good to have him out there and seeing the progression that he's made.” 

Sophomore Ramon Henderson, who started the last three games at field safety, was limited in practice with a hamstring injury. 

“He’s not full-go yet, but we expect him to be full-go on Jan. 1,” Freeman said. “And he’s getting there. He ran full-speed in a training session, but he did not go full-go today, and that’s very precautionary on our part. We expect him to be full-go for the Fiesta Bowl.” 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.