Chat Transcript: Will Notre Dame be as patient with Marcus Freeman as Clemson was with Dabo Swinney?
SOUTH BEND — The following is a transcript of Tuesday's weekly live chat on Notre Dame football. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Scott, Sacramento: Morning Mike, well a win is a win. ND will take what they can get, congratulations to Coach Freeman on his 1st victory. Now to the reality, California is a bottom of the PAC 12 team, year in and out. Not to many people are talking about the phantom offsides call against Cal after we missed a field goal that we eventually scored a touchdown on, that’s seven points that we should not have. Then we got a break on a third down incompletion when the Cal linebacker made a mental mistake for roughing the passer/ targeting. ND scored a touchdown on that drive. “ Execution” was the word after the loss to Marshall. Numerous illegal procedures on the offensive line, dropped passes by Styles and Lenzy, complete wiffs on blitz by Lewis and sack by Foskey, blown coverage by Hart on Cal touchdown, showed a lot of work needs to be done. The offense was bland but effective later. Lack of recruiting game breaking WR and top QB’s are really showing. Not sure why the former walk-on WR is getting more time than Tobias. Go ND
Mike Berardino: Sacramento Scott! Thanks for stopping by. You raise valid points here, and no one, least of all those inside the Gug, is ignoring the luck of the Irish in the win over Cal. There's still plenty to "clean up," as Marcus Freeman will tell you, and that's where in-season improvement comes in. Speaking of that, Tobias Merriweather got his first four snaps — PFF-College adjusted that total after initially having him at five Sunday morning — at the college level with the promise of more to come. I posted a video on NDInsider.com of Freeman explaining the "trust" that must continue to build between coaches and player. I'd be careful not to denigrate the contributions of Matt Salerno. He was out there for 17 offensive snaps Saturday, caught the only ball thrown his way and did his part as a blocker and special teams contributor. By the way, "Bland but Effective" sounds like a great working title for the memoirs of so many modern play-by-play broadcasters. I'll let you decide who would wear it best.
Terry Jackson, Center, Ohio: I saw Tyler Buchner sitting in the Press Box behind Tommy Rees Saturday. Was there a reason (maybe physical) that he was not down on the field offering Drew Pyne encouragement and advice? Your thoughts.
Mike Berardino: Welcome, Ohio Terry! Oh, my. I hope young Tyler was covering his ears. He was down on the field for pregame warmups, huddling with Pyne and the starting O-line as they shared a laugh. I noted that on Twitter (hope you follow!) I'm thinking with Buchner's left arm in a sling, it was best to keep him out of harm's way once the game started. Sideline collisions happen all the time.
P.Rose, St. Paul: Where did Joe WIlkins disappear to?
Mike Berardino: St. Paul in the house! Good to hear from the Cradle of Legends (Winfield, Molitor, Morris, Mauer). Joe Wilkins Jr., whose offseason was marred by April 1 surgery for a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, has 14 total snaps and zero targets so far. Did you know: Of Wilkins 11 career receptions, seven have come in the month of September? Saturday in Chapel Hill, against a UNC defense that ranks ninth-worst in the nation at 468 yards per game allowed and 119th overall in scoring defense (37.7), Notre Dame plays its last September game of JW2's college career.
CHUCK FROM CLEVELAND "THE LAND": Hi Mike, thanks again for your insight. A win helps all of our attitudes but I am beginning to realize that this is just NOT a good team. Lou always said that the greatest improvement occurs between Week 1 and Week 2, did not see much of that. After watching so many games this w/e and seeing so many Wideouts hauling in passes, is our reluctance to throw down field based upon our fear of the turnover or lack of confidence in our wideouts? Last and this may not be fair to you but .... if you can only have ONE, would you take the ND talent or ND Coaches? At his point, I still believe in the level of talent. Thanks Mike and so glad to be a part of this Chat.
Mike Berardino: Thanks, Cleveland Chuck. We're so glad to have you and your insights here as well. Hope you didn't watch too much of that crazy Purdue loss at Syracuse. As we've covered here, Charlie Jones, the Iowa grad transfer who's been reunited at Purdue with his boyhood friend/QB Aidan O'Connell, leads the country in receptions (32) and is tied for second in touchdown grabs (5). Notre Dame made a strong push for Jones in the portal, as O'Connell confirmed to me in July. Can you imagine how different this Irish pass offense might've looked in the first three weeks with a Julian Edelman-type like Jones getting separation on seemingly every snap? As for the long ball, I don't see Drew Pyne being asked to stretch defenses vertically too often this year. He'll stick to the short, safe, quick passes you saw when he got rolling against Cal. When it comes to so-called "arm talent," that's well down the list of Pyne's best attributes.
As for your last question, I'm a little confused: Are we talking one game, one season? Even the most talented player can only impact a program for 3-4 years. A top-shelf coaching staff of teachers and recruiters, which Marcus Freeman pieced together on the fly last offseason, can set you up for a decade or more.
Alan from Whiteland, Indiana: Mike, in watching the Notre Dame offense, it does not appear on television the wide receivers are creating much separation. You are physically at the games, am I wrong about this? If I am right, what, in your opinion, can Coach Rees do to help the passing game be more efficient? Thank you for answering my question.
Mike Berardino: Hello, Alan. Thanks for supporting our weekly chat. You make a great observation, one that Marcus Freeman has echoed multiple times when he reminds the media a quarterback, whether it's Drew Pyne or anyone else, needs his teammates to make him look good. I'd suggest Pyne might try borrowing a page from another Drew (Brees) and see if he can't master the back-shoulder pass as a method of "throwing them open." But I realize that could be asking for trouble.
Your question reminds me of my old friend Tom Sorensen, who had a long run as a sports columnist in Charlotte. Tom had just come back from covering a Florida-Tennessee game at Knoxville, and he said he spent much of the afternoon watching the Vols secondary from that stratospheric press box at Neyland Stadium. As those tiny orange figures keep spinning aimlessly down on the field, Tom kept trying to figure out how Steve Spurrier got those Gators receivers so wide open, play after play.
Someday, perhaps, Chansi Stuckey's crew will leave us similarly dumbstruck. If signing day goes as planned, four-star talents like Braylon James, Rico Flores and Jaden Greathouse will join Tobias Merriweather, Lorenzo Styles and others in a much deeper, much more dangerous WR room. That day, however, has yet to arrive.
Ryan in Mars, Pa.: Mike who replaces JD Bertrand this week to start will be Bauer or someone else?
Mike Berardino: Good question. Bertrand, third-leading tackler in the early going this year, had 45 snaps in the box (per PFF.com) vs. Cal, plus 8 more snaps in the sub-packages. He had 47 box snaps in last year's shootout with UNC, so we're talking roughly 25 first-half snaps that must be redistributed. Fellow captain Bo Bauer, who had just nine defensive snaps vs. Cal, is a leading option. So is Jack Kiser, the rover who has been moving inside in nickel coverages. Kiser had 28 snaps vs. Cal. Based on Monday's comments, Freeman sees freshman Junior Tuihalamaka ( two snaps vs. Cal) earning more looks as well as the season goes on.
Ken - Pensacola: Mike - Who got the game ball & can ND defeat the rest of the teams they will play this season? Thanks - go Irish!!!!!!
Mike Berardino: Pensacola Ken, game ball, we can only assume, went to Freeman after his first career coaching win. Freeman announced Monday that the staff-selected players of the game were Audric Estime (offense), Isaiah Foskey (defense) and Houston Griffith (special teams). These distinctions will only be awarded after wins. Can Notre Dame run the table in the regular season? Sure, why not? Will it? Highly unlikely.
Tim from Tucker, GA: What improvement do you think will show up in the Oline this week?
Mike Berardino: Based on how much it was emphasized at halftime (per Freeman) and was again at Monday's news conference (see my NDInsider.com notebook), I'm going to say the O-line stops fidgeting before the snap. Of the seven false starts through three games, two have been whistled on wideouts (Styles and Lenzy), another on tight end Kevin Bauman and the rest have been on Harry Hiestand's hogs: Jarrett Patterson (twice), Blake Fisher and Zeke Correll. It must be particularly challenging for Patterson to wait for the center snap before moving since his whole previous college career has allowed him the luxury of triggering the play. That's not an excuse, just something that strikes me as part of the challenge of switching to a new spot at this point of his career.
Alan from Whiteland, Indiana: Mike, I admit to you and your readers I am mystified. Jarrett Patterson is going to be selected in the lower first or upper second round in this year’s NFL draft as a center. Yet, Notre Dame’s coaching staff has him playing guard. Doesn’t this weaken two positions on the offensive line? Help me understand this decision. Thank you for answering my question.
Mike Berardino: Hey, Alan. Since we were just talking O-line, I'll go back to you for this one. Not sure if you read my Q&A with Tim Grunhard, a national champion at Notre Dame in 1988 and an 11-year starter at center for the Kansas City Chiefs, but he basically shared your skepticism about the move. Barring injury, I don't see any additional tweaks on the Irish O-line, especially after the starting five got a combined 146 snaps together the past two weeks. It took until their fourth half as a unit to start seeing things fall into place, but if they can carry over that second half against Cal (no sacks, 3.9 yards per carry on 22 attempts), it would mean a lot for the collective confidence — both in the O-line room and beyond.
Rich O'Donnell, Cleveland Heights, Ohio: When was the last time ND wasn't ranked in the Top 25. A second part, when did they not even received one vote which would have listed them in the "others receiving a vote?"
Mike Berardino: Cleveland Rich, hello! The loss to Marshall brought an end to an 80-week run of Associated Press Top 25 appearances for the Irish. That streak, which dated to Sept. 17, 2017, had been the fourth-longest active streak. After dropping from eighth to 36th (also receiving votes), as you noted Notre Dame fell entirely off the AP board this week. I'm not sure when that happened last, but I'm quite sure Marshall's stunning loss at Bowling Green, blowing a 14-point second-half lead in the process, had much to do with it. North Carolina, for what it's worth, is effectively ranked 29th this week. LSU (gasp) is up to No. 36.
Zac from Fort Wayne: What a frustrating start to an otherwise hopeful and promising year. In your opinion are the offensive woes an issue with Touchdown Tommy or execution by our players. Even with the losses at RB, WR, and QB, I think most fans have expected more output by the unit to this point? With Al Golden taking over the defense and the move of Freeman to HC, defensive stumbling was maybe more expected. Each and every year I hope for an offensive juggernaut, and the hope is dashed out time and time again. Do you think we will turn things around in time to be ranked and competitive against Clemson? Winning the next 5 would certainly take care of the ranked portion, but do you think that is a realistic expectation moving forward? As always, thanks for your time!
Mike Berardino: Yo Zac, thanks for stopping by. There was bound to be a drop-off after nearly three full seasons of Ian Book at the controls, followed by an 11-win season with grad transfer Jack Coan. Losing Tyler Buchner to injury late in his second career start only complicates matters. I'd still like to see Steve Angeli get a series or two each week, a la Buchner in 2021, so he's not asked to come in cold should Pyne get hurt or require in-game relief due to ineffectiveness. As for Rees, there's no getting around the fact Notre Dame ranks 115th nationally in scoring offense (18.3 ppg) through three weeks. That comes on the heels of a 35.2 scoring average last season that left the Irish tied for 19th nationally — with Sam Howell-led UNC. In 2020, Rees' first year as an OC, Notre Dame finished 30th (33.4 ppg) in scoring offense.
All of this is to say, yes, I believe Rees knows what he's doing. More importantly, NFL head coaches like Sean McVay and Nick Sirianni rave openly about Rees and his creativity as well. Facing a porous UNC defense that ranks near the bottom nationally in points allowed (119th), yards per carry (T101), yards per pass attempt (T111) and total defense (123rd) seems like a great opportunity to build on a solid second half against Cal.
William from Glenn Burnie, MD: Mike, I have reached the conclusion that ND will finish the season with a losing record. Do you think this will cause a large number of the 23 verbal commitments to change their mind? It's not unusual to lose one or two but I'm afraid we could lose six or seven. What are your thoughts?
Mike Berardino: Hey William, this is a fine question and one of the most vital subplots between now and the early signing date of Dec. 21. It seems unlikely that Keon Keeley and Sedrick Irvin Jr. (now a Stanford commitment) will be the last big-time recruits to decommit from ND's 2023 class. Texas four-star safety Peyton Bowen is the one who seems to inspire the most hand-wringing among close observers, but barring a complete on-field collapse — which no one is expecting — it's hard to imagine a "large number" of ND recruits bailing on the program. Freeman and his band of "relentless recruiters" simply won't let that happen.
Bert from Windermere: I am an alum and a fan since 1954. I think we should quit making excuses. The coaches should start coaching and the players playing. Oklahoma is now 3-0 with a new coach who has always been a defensive coordinator and had never called an offensive play, has an all new coaching staff, lost his playmakers to the Portal and has a new quarterback. My question is what, in your opinion, has to be done and will it get done?
Mike Berardino: Hi Bert, thanks for your question. While I agree that excuses are pointless — even when prefaced with "nobody cares but ..." — it would be disingenuous to ignore the soft open to the Sooners' schedule under former Clemson DC Brent Venables. Oklahoma had the luxury of easy wins against UTEP and Kent State, followed by a road thrashing of a Nebraska program in disarray after the firing of Scott Frost. Just as significantly, and to the Sooners' credit, they brought in Jeff Lebby as the new OC for Central Florida transfer QB Dillon Gabriel. Those two worked together in 2019 in Orlando, when Gabriel put up a 29/7 TD/INT ratio as a freshman. Gabriel's career mark in that all-important area is 77/14, including 7/0 this year after his reunion with Lebby. If you want to know how OU survived the defections of Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams to USC, I'd say that's a pretty good place to start.
Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric, I hope you enjoyed the first win of the season. Why do you think our Tight ends and receivers are having such a hard time blocking ? Is it a scheme issue, Or possibly a technique issue? What can be done to improve it? Also, as follow up from last week although Rees is against bringing in a consultant to help him, despite the win and the fact that the offense finally showed some signs of life, There are still a lot of problems and a lot of work to be done. Perhaps Rees has too much on his plate. If you’re Freeman should make the executive decision to bring someone in, at the Very least to help coach quarterbacks? Why or why not? Thanks for hosting the chat.
Mike Berardino: Hi Marie! Eric left us after last season, but I'll be sure to tell him you said hi the next time I run into him on campus. As for your excellent questions, not everyone can be Tommy Tremble. Notre Dame's struggles so far to run wide (even via jet sweep) have as much to do with the lack of blocking prowess on the perimeter (Jayden Thomas aside) as anything else. Kevin Bauman can block. Mitchell Evans should be back fairly soon. And Michael Mayer has vowed to make himself a complete player with no weaknesses. Brick by brick, the run game should keep getting a little better each week.
As for Rees and a consultant/analyst/QB coach to lighten his preparation load, remember when Rees served as QB coach under Chip Long? How did that work out for Chip? As you know, being from The Varsity World HQ, Long is now OC for a Georgia Tech team that has lost by a combined 83-10 to a pair of ranked opponents (Clemson and Ole Miss). Long, who has bounced to Tennessee to Tulane to the Flats since getting fired in South Bend, now gets to work with QB Jeff Sims. Lucky him.
Frank Lakeside Park, Ky.: It’s a joke that Mike Mayer only caught two passes vs Cal.That should never happen.The guy cannot be covered. Please do not blame Pyne for the early misses.I would be nervous too if my career were in Tommy Rees’ hands.I get tough coaching ,but not with a camera in his face. He embarrassed UND and himself. I seriously doubt if he gets it or cares.Tommy Clements should be offered that coordinator job after this season. He is a true ND man and is highly respected,especially by Aaron Rodgers. Hope i am wrong but i see little upside with Rees as our O coordinator.
Mike Berardino: Kentucky Frank, hello! I see you're right down the road from Covington Catholic, where Michael Mayer starred in high school. I'm guessing he rarely went more than 3 minutes of game clock between touches, much less the 37 minutes that ran off Saturday between TARGETS for the preseason All-American. I asked Freeman about this on Monday, and he made it clear that Mayer must get the ball.
"We have to find ways to get the ball in Michael Mayer’s hands. We understand that," Freeman said Monday. "Every week, one of the main plans will be to get the ball to Michael Mayer."
IrishMike Altoona,PA: Hi Mike! Any chance Tommy Rees would reconsider bringing on an offense analyst, ala David Cutcliffe, to assist him? Freeman was reportedly open to the idea but Rees nixed it!
Mike Berardino: Irish Mike, hello! In-season? I doubt it. But Cutcliffe, who turned 68 last week, does have a direct connection to the Notre Dame staff via tight ends coach Gerad Parker, who spent the 2017-18 seasons on his Duke staff. Also, did you know Cutcliffe named his first child "Marcus"? I didn't either until I just looked it up on Wikipedia. Your point is well-taken, but I'd also suggest the Irish make a run at this Chad Powers guy as an offensive analyst. Just watched his tryout at Penn State on YouTube and was very impressed. Chad run fast, you know. Think fast, run fast.
Sean, Portland, Ore.: Hi Mike - I'm not naturally an optimist... but I'll try. Tell me if I am being unrealistic? Obviously ND's team has some problems to fix, but the defense could keep them competitive in almost any game. The offense should grow and get better, and the loss to Marshall is inexplicable. Is 8-4 or 9-3 still within reach? If the offense steps up and can keep the defense off the field, defense starts creating turnovers, and Pyne can work efficiently? I still feel like there's potential here that we could eventually just chalk the Marshall game up as a "hangover" game after a close fight in the Horseshoe.
Mike Berardino: Portland Sean, for an avowed non-optimist that was a pretty good Pollyanna. The season still hangs in the balance. The situation remains fluid. And yes, this would be a good time for Al Golden's defense to start taking the ball away and giving that modest Pyne-led offense some short fields with which to work. The Tar Heels have given the ball away four times so far: three fumbles, one interception.
Pat H. Springfield Illinois: What are the strengths and weaknesses of North Carolina’s quarterback and can ND exploit Carolina’s defense as Appalachian St. did?
Mike Berardino: Springfield Pat, welcome. The more I hear about Drake Maye, the more the redshirt freshman reminds me of his dad. I covered Mark Maye during his record-setting career at UNC in 1986-87. Mack Brown, who later had Mark Maye on his UNC staff as a grad assistant, compares Drake to his former Texas QB Colt McCoy.
Here's what Brown said after a recent game about Maye: "He’s got a great feel in the pocket. And his release is so quick. He can have his body in any position and make a throw, and most people can’t do that. They have to gather themselves. He can be on the run and throw it. He’s not going to take many sacks normally because he’s going to get the ball out of his hands. And he can run, so they’ve got to be really careful. When they lose contain, he can make 15 yards up very quickly. I think he’s got everything. He’s got everything except experience."
Mike from Pa.: Mike - doesn't everyone need to calm down when it comes to Freeman? He was 5 years old when Brian Kelly became a head coach. To expect Freeman to just rip off 10-12 wins a year would go against everything we have learned about head coaching experience. His job is to elevate the talent level and close the gap against the truly elite teams while also learning how to be a head coach. Those results are years away, and in the interim there will probably be some bad losses, and some wins where they don't look so good. Everyone needs to step away from the ledge! Dabo Swinney was 19-15 in his first 3 years, pretty sure Clemson was rewarded for showing a little patience.
Mike Berardino: Hey Mike, thanks for weighing in. The Dabo comp is interesting, but keep in mind he was replacing the fired Tommy Bowden in 2008 at a school where they hadn't reached 10 wins since Ken Hatfield was the coach in 1990. Notre Dame won 54 games over Kelly's final five seasons (10 or more each year) and just missed making it three playoff trips in that same span. Patience and allowing a talented young coach to learn on the fly might make sense at a lot of places, but Freeman would be the first to tell you Notre Dame isn't like most places.
Mike Berardino: All right, looks like we made it through all your questions. Thanks again, everybody. Truly appreciate your interest. We'll see you right back here on Tuesday Sept. 27 at 11 a.m.
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