Notebook: No COVID-19 cases and a healthy Cam Hart for Notre Dame ahead of Fiesta Bowl
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Notre Dame football fans couldn’t have asked for better updates from head coach Marcus Freeman on Friday.
Starting cornerback Cam Hart, who didn’t practice as recently as Wednesday, will be able to play in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. (1 p.m. EST on ESPN). Freeman said Hart suffered a thigh bruise earlier this week in practice.
“He was practicing (Thursday), and he'll be ready to go,” Freeman said. “We look forward for him being 100% on Saturday.”
► Fiesta Bowl notebook: Elston's play-calling duties on defense is not his first time
And as of Friday morning, the Irish had zero COVID-19 cases that would impact a player’s availability on Saturday.
“What we did is we made sure they understood how important it is to make good decisions as you left campus and as you come down to Arizona,” Freeman said. “We have to make smart decisions. We have to know where we're at and understand that, ‘Hey, whatever it's going to take to make sure we have everybody healthy and available to play this game, then let's do it.’
“They've done an excellent job, and everybody will be available for Saturday.”
The updates from Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy weren’t quite as positive at Friday’s shared press conference with both coaches. Gundy said freshman wide receiver Blaine Green, the team’s third-leading receiver with 21 catches for 314 yards and one touchdown, would miss the Fiesta Bowl with an undisclosed injury.
Oklahoma State was in “great shape” with COVID-19 cases, Gundy said. The No. 9 Cowboys (11-2) had only one COVID-19 positive test since arriving in Arizona on Sunday. The team had a few prior to leaving Stillwater, Okla., Gundy said. He did not reveal who tested positive.
Keeping Hart in the starting lineup is a huge win for Notre Dame, though it will be worth monitoring if he’s limited in any way. Hart was walking slow and gingerly while watching Wednesday’s practice with tape around his thigh.
Without Hart, the Irish would have to move senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy in the starting lineup opposite of sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis. The next cornerbacks in line to play would likely be freshman Ryan Barnes ahead of freshman Philip Riley.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Hart played in all 12 regular season games and started nine of them. He led Notre Dame with seven pass breakups and tallied 41 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two interceptions.
Tracking the evolution of Notre Dame’s defense
Notre Dame’s defense looked like it was in for a long season after the first two games of the 2021 season. Despite starting 2-0, the Irish ranked No. 88 in total defense for allowing 393.5 yards per game against Florida State and Toledo.
“It was a great, actually humbling experience for me to start the season,” said Freeman, who started his tenure as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator with those two shaky performances. “You come from Cincinnati where we had a lot of success, and you feel like you really had a good spring. You really had a good fall.
“As you go into the first game versus Florida State, after that game, you're like, ‘Oh, crap, we're not as good as I thought.’ In terms of defensively, we didn't play as well. Toledo, we didn't play as well.”
“It really made me lean on our staff and say, ‘What changes do we need to make? What small changes do we need to make to make sure this scheme fits the players that we have?’
“What you've seen over the course of the year is just trying to make small, strategic changes to our scheme to make sure it fits the players we have. Then all of a sudden, after week (7), your best player, Kyle Hamilton, goes down.”
► More Fiesta Bowl: No surprise that Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer will be a marked man Saturday
After a 31-16 victory over USC on Oct. 23 in which Hamilton suffered what would become a season-ending knee injury, the Irish had climbed to No. 59 in total defense for allowing 370.3 yards per game. At the time, it was hard to fathom Notre Dame’s defense continuing to improve without its All-American safety. But the group kept making strides against mostly less-than-stellar offenses.
“You have to say, ‘OK, now how do we fit this scheme around who's the next guy in?’ This group has just trusted us and this coaching staff,” Freeman said. “The coaching staff has done a tremendous job in terms of just figuring out what's the best way to teach these guys. What's the best thing that fits these guys?
“We've worked as a team. The defensive staff has been a team all year. Taking other people's ideas is something that we've done. And just the ability to try and get to this final product that we have, it's been a growing experience.
“But as of the Stanford game, we were playing our best ball. And so, I hope that momentum can continue to keep going in the same direction as we get ready to go out there (Saturday).”
On Friday, the Irish sat No. 27 in the total defense ranking for allowing 339.1 yards per game. A final test against Oklahoma State’s 65th-ranked total offense (402.9 yards per game) awaits.
► Oklahoma State will use three different defensive play callers on Saturday: defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements, safeties coach Dan Hammerschmidt and cornerbacks coach Tim Duffie. The Cowboys lost defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to Ohio State in December.
“Once Jim decided to leave, then I had to go to work and watch and see and get a feel in meetings and different things, practice, to get an idea of where we were at as a staff,” Gundy said. “And I became comfortable with several guys being able to help calling the game.”
► Notre Dame plans to use walk-on wide receiver Matt Salerno at punt returner on Saturday, Freeman said. Running back Kyren Williams, who opted out of the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft, returned 14 punts for the Irish this season for a total of 151 yards. Salerno, who was Notre Dame’s No. 1 punt returner in 2020, returned one punt for four yards in 2021.
Wide receivers Lorenzo Styles and Kevin Austin Jr. were also catching punts at Tuesday’s practice.
► A greater one-horned rhino named Chutti predicted a Notre Dame victory over Oklahoma State by destroying a cardboard box with a Notre Dame logo on it Friday at the Phoenix Zoo,
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.