Noie: Easy first day of preseason camp wasn't option for Irish, and it shouldn't be
SOUTH BEND - Four hours before his first official preseason practice got going and an hour before sunrise, first-year Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman already was on campus and on the move.
Keeping with his preference to squeeze in a workout before his day gets too busy, Freeman was out on a jog at 5:30 a.m. Then it was back to his office and in and out of one meeting after another (staff, team, special teams) before the first official Irish workout commenced just before 9:30.
Just like their head coach, the 2022 Irish hit the ground running. Unlike the coach's jog, this one was a sprint.
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Friday was not your typical first practice. There wasn’t a lot of easing into everything. Really, easing into anything. It was get on the field and get to work. It started with work in the red zone (a new and early practice plan wrinkle suggested by defensive coordinator Al Golden). Everything and everybody picked up the pace and intensity from there on a day when being outside felt like being stuck in a steam room.
There was heat, and not the dry variety. There was humidity, and a blanket of it. There was haze, so much so that the hat and sunglasses stayed packed away. And that was just on the sideline, where it felt hotter looking at Freeman in sleeves. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens decided it was best to rock a long-sleeve blue sweatshirt.
Imagine being in football gear (everything but pads) and doing a lot of football stuff for more than two hours in that environment. There were water breaks, and even a period when players were offered the opportunity to snack on some fruit — the watermelon wedges were a nice touch — but there really was nothing easy about Friday.
Welcome to Notre Dame football under Freeman where even on the first day, there are no easy days. Not yet. That’s how Freeman wants it. Needs it. Has to have it in the run-up to the season opener because, well, this is not your typical season opener.
Notre Dame’s not kicking off 2022 safe and sound at home in the late afternoon against some overmatched directional school. With the opener set for Sept. 3 at Ohio State — at night — Friday’s first day mirrored that sense of urgency, that need to be good and from the jump.
Thus, the intensity levels. The noise levels (we’ll get to that). The expectation levels.
At one point when everything moved out of the sauna-like Irish Athletic Facility and across the LaBar Practice Fields, Freeman could look over at a tented area near the 50-yard line and between the practice fields and see one player after another after another — including two starting offensive linemen — walk slowly over and take a seat. They needed the break. They were running on the red line, overheating with each passing period.
Center Zeke Correll sat and then struggled. So did right tackle Blake Fisher. Same with linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka. It only was three players out of more than 100, but that was three too many.
A good day, but more remain
Afterward, Freeman huddled everyone and offered his opinion — you have to find a way to make it through. Want to chase the school’s first national championship since 1988? Gotta push past the heat and finish the first day of camp in August so you can do the same in the fourth quarter in September and October and beyond.
Yeah, it was hot. Yeah, it was humid. Yeah, it’s not ideal football weather (the temperature was 74 degrees, yet it felt more like 94), but that’s football. That’s why the Irish do all those early-morning drills in June and July. That’s why they push themselves silly with strength and conditioning chief Matt Balis. So, they can stare down what the Irish had to stare down Friday morning and shrug.
Like, that’s the best you got? Well, we’ve got a little more.
Moving the way the Irish moved Friday was by design.
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“We have to develop fast,” said Freeman, who had the luxury of a post-practice shower and change of clothes before meeting the media inside a room at Notre Dame Stadium for 28 minutes. “We have to be ready to roll right out of the gate.”
The 10th practice period — each one is a five-minute segment — underscored that point. That’s when the collection of music that bounced out from the speakers (that’s a new touch, too) suddenly ceased. That’s when the media assembled on a section of blue stadium-like seats on the east side scrambled to attention. Like, this was worth standing up to see.
That’s when the crowd noise kicked in, and the No. 1 offense was asked to decipher the No. 1 defense. Quarterback Tyler Buchner and tight end Michael Mayer and the No. 1 offensive line against linebacker J.D. Bertrand and defensive end Isiaah Foskey and the No. 1 defensive line.
That was a treat.
Again, all by design from Freeman, who wanted his coaches to let their players play and figure it out for themselves on the fly, even on the first day in doing stuff that the media usually doesn’t get to see. Oh, there’s noise (Enter Sandman) and fight songs (USC’s anyone?) blaring at salient spots during the season, but that's often midweek in October or November and no way are we around for any of that.
We were Friday, again likely to emphasize the point that the first day of this camp — Freeman's camp — is different. This team might be different. This season could be different.
Thus, the pointed post-practice talk with his team from Freeman. His pre-practice address, back inside the IAF, lasted 24 seconds. The second stretched a little longer. There was more to say and Freeman watched the Irish do what they do.
“It’s got to be hard,” he said of practice. “We had a couple guys go out because of the heat (but) we’re not changing what we’re doing. I believe this is what we need — be prepared to go.
“The way we’re going to challenge our players, that’s not going to change.”
Good, because this group should be able to handle anything/everything thrown their way. Doubts about it can fuel determination. They’re too experienced, too motivated, too built to win now (i.e., too good) to let a little heat and humidity bog it all down.
Freeman still may be a rookie head coach (he’s been on the job for eight months as of Wednesday), but in name only. He showed Friday that he knows when to blow the whistle and knows his way around a practice field, even if he still struggles to figure out where to stand during individual position drills.
This is his team. This can be their time.
“This is the starting point,” Freeman said before retreating to the Gug to watch the film of said start. “You step on the field, it’s 100 percent.”
From Friday until further notice.