Notebook: A healthy Notre Dame football team is sticking to its Fiesta Bowl plan

Tyler James
ND Insider
Head Coach Marcus Freeman has a chat with OL John Dirksen (56) 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.

SOUTH BEND — The itinerary for Notre Dame football hasn’t changed during its preparation for the Fiesta Bowl. 

As another round of COVID-19 outbreaks has started to impact sports across the country, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman is confident in his team’s ability to stay healthy. That means members of Notre Dame’s program will still be allowed to return home for Christmas before they reunite in the Phoenix area Monday. 

"We talked about it as a staff and we talked about it as a leadership committee,” Freeman said Wednesday. “We have to be clear on our expectations with the players, and we are. We're very clear on what we expect you to do when you leave. To be smart in where you go and who you're around. I feel very confident we'll be OK.” 

The Fiesta Bowl gave the Irish the opportunity to delay their arrival until Dec. 30, two days before the game is scheduled to be played at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., at 1 p.m. EST on ESPN. The College Football Playoff Management Committee announced Wednesday new policies to help accommodate teams participating in the College Football Playoff, the Peach Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl.

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Among the policies outlined was a contingency plan for the Fiesta Bowl if either No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) or No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) determines it doesn’t have enough players available due to COVID-19 spread. If such problem arises, the Fiesta Bowl, College Football Playoff and ESPN shall attempt to identify an alternate date for the game within one week of Jan. 1. If no date can be identified, the game will be canceled and considered a no contest.

When Notre Dame’s staff and players arrive in Arizona on Monday, the Irish should be able to control the amount of exposure the team faces. Attendance of pre-bowl events will be optional and in-person media access will switch to online formats. 

“Let's get together and let's get out there on Monday and make sure that we're in our own bubble and not off at different places,” Freeman said. “We'll be out there on Monday and our team is looking forward to going in and it's a reward for them.  

“We're there to win a championship and we're there to finish as champions, but there's a reward to be able to go to Arizona from Monday to Saturday and spend some time in that warm climate.” 

As of Wednesday, the Irish remained relatively healthy. 

"We've been pretty good other than a couple of sniffles,” Freeman said. “For the most part we've been really good in terms of staying in close contact with each other and being smart. That's the challenge. You have to be smart. We have to understand COVID is still out there, and I don't care if you're vaccinated. It's still out there, and we have to be smart in terms of what we expose ourselves to.” 

Finding time to complete his coaching staff 

Freeman has made it clear that winning the Fiesta Bowl is priority No. 1 for the Irish in the post-early signing period of December for Notre Dame. 

But in his new role as head coach, he’s learned that there are plenty of other things that require his attention.  

"It's like every time I want to sit down and truly focus on X's and O's, there's a lot of other things you have to do,” Freeman said. “You have to be very intentional on when it's football time and when it's everything-else time. I've tried to make sure that I'm intentional in when I can study the film and when I can study our practice, but also — you know what — there's things that you can't put aside.  

“You can't put recruiting aside. You better get on the phone with these kids. You can't put decisions aside. You have the (transfer) portal, and now you have guys that are, ‘Hey, are we going to the NFL early?’ And you're trying to get them all this information to connecting with parents too. There's just a list of things that we can go over that I probably didn't know it included being the head coach, but you just accomplish one thing at a time." 

Juggling all those responsibilities will make it hard for complete his coaching staff for the 2022 season quickly, but Freeman wants to find the right balance of urgency while making the correct hires. Because most of Notre Dame’s coaching staff is expected to remain in place, the new hires likely won’t happen until after the Fiesta Bowl is completed. 

"Every decision I make is a collective group,” Freeman said. “I'm going to lean on the staff. I'm going to lean on the people around me. That's how I've always been. I don't have every answer.  

“At some point you have to make a decision. But the ability to take some people's advice and opinions that are really, really intelligent people, that's something I've always done and I'll continue to do.” 

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and defensive line coach Mike Elston during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The Irish staff has two current openings: the defensive coordinator role Freeman previously had and the special teams coordinator role left open by Brian Polian’s departure to LSU. Freeman has indicated the rest of Notre Dame’s defensive coaching staff will remain in place. The offensive coaching staff will likely have openings at offensive line coach and wide receivers coach, though Freeman hasn’t stated that publicly. Both Jeff Quinn (OL) and Del Alexander (WRs) have stayed on staff for the Fiesta Bowl. 

In replacing himself as defensive coordinator, Freeman said he wants to focus on finding someone who fits with the current staff and will have some flexibility in scheme. Continuity will play an important role just as Freeman adapted to what previous Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea did before him. 

“Put it on the defensive coordinator to be able to relearn names and terminology, but don't put all that stress on the players,” Freeman said. “Let's put that on a coordinator. So that's probably one of the things that I'm going to just demand a little bit is, ‘Hey, if we can keep as much same as that they know, it's going to help them learn whatever new scheme adjustments that we have.’” 

Who will call the defensive plays in the Fiesta Bowl? 

Freeman has yet to commit to who will serve as the defensive coordinator on Jan. 1. 

Defensive line coach Mike Elston has been calling the plays in practice so far. But the preparation has been spread among cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, safeties coach Chris O’Leary and senior defensive analyst Nick Lezynski, who has been coaching linebackers in place of Freeman. 

“I'll be involved with some other things that we do defensively,” Freeman said. “We're still going to figure it out. But Elston has kind of taken that role in practice. ‘Hey, here's the game plan, call it.’ We'll work hand in hand, but the whole staff has done an unbelievable job. Everybody has stepped it up, because I'm pulled away.” 

Extra points 

• A big chunk of Notre Dame’s practice the last two weeks have been spent matching up Notre Dame’s starting offense and defense. 

“We've done a lot of good-on-good,” Freeman said. “You have no other option but to raise your level of play when you're going against somebody good. If we're going against scout team, it's a little bit sometimes fit ball. Make sure I'm perfect, you're perfect, let's be good. But when you go good-on-good, the competitive juices come out. That's why it's very intentional to make good-on-good. We've done so much of it.  

• Freeman doesn’t have an extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of Notre Dame’s depth chart on offense, but he’s certainly been able to make a number of observations throughout the season and in bowl prep practices. Of note, Freeman was asked what he thinks about freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. 

“What I see is a dude who can throw the ball,” Freeman said. “He has a great release. He can put the ball in places that I haven't seen many people do. Obviously, we know he can escape. He has the ability to extend plays with his legs.” 

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) runs the ball during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

• Freeman expects Notre Dame’s running back rotation to include three players in the Fiesta Bowl: sophomore Chris Tyree and freshmen Logan Diggs and Audric Estime. 

Tyree (50 carries for 204 yards and 1 TD) and Diggs (43 carries for 201 yards and 3 TDs) have been relied on at times this season. Estime’s only action in the backfield came on six carries for 61 yards late in the 55-0 victory over Georgia Tech on Nov. 20. 

“All three of those guys, I would venture to say you're going to see them all,” Freeman said. “I'm confident whoever’s in the backfield is going to be productive for us.” 

Senior C’Bo Flemister will not be available for the Irish. 

• Freeman hasn’t had a lot of time for Christmas preparations for his six children, but his wife, Joanna, has taken the lead. 

"I hope my wife has done a good job,” Freeman said. “It's funny. I come into my office yesterday at 5 and she's on her hands and knees in my office putting together Christmas gifts for the entire staff and I didn't even think about it. I'm just like, ‘Gosh, man, she's unbelievable.’ But I'm certain that Christmas will be good. 

“It'll be hectic. I'm always the guy that walks around with a trash bag. ‘Don't throw your wrapping paper everywhere. Put it in a trash bag.’ She's always yelled at me, ‘Just enjoy this time.’”

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.