Jim Tressel's message to Marcus Freeman: 'Hey, you'll be fine'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Jim and Ellen Tressel are recognized with players from the 2002 national championship team during the NCAA football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — As Marcus Freeman tries to keep Notre Dame’s season from completely unraveling, the rookie coach can find solace in the historical precedent of his mentor Jim Tressel’s first year at Ohio State.

The 2001 Buckeyes went 7-5, including 2-4 in one-score games, and never won more than two straight en route to a bowl loss to Lou Holtz and South Carolina. The low point might have been a 20-17 home loss to unranked Wisconsin in mid-October that left many wondering about the credentials of this Division I-AA import on the sideline.

In 2002, the Buckeyes went 14-0 and won their first national title in 34 years.

“(Tressel) struggled his first year,” Freeman said Monday after a 16-14 loss to Stanford dropped the Irish to 3-3. “I think back to our first year at Cincinnati (2017 under Luke Fickell). It was a struggle. … You have to go through some of these growing pains, man. It’s just a part of it being something new.”

Set to retire as president of Youngstown State in February, Tressel, 69, stays in close contact with his former star linebacker.

“I hear from him,” Freeman said. “We talk often — weekly. I wouldn’t get too in-depth in our conversations. Some are football. His opinion — ‘I’m going to give you my opinion’ — and I respect his opinion. But more so just that, ‘Hey, you’ll be fine, man.’ “

Of the many Tresselisms that stick with Freeman, one of his favorites is: ‘Paradise is where your butt is.”

Even with a .500 record at a program that won 54 times over the previous five seasons under Brian Kelly, it’s important to appreciate the present and the process.

“That’s why I keep telling myself: To build something the right way, I can’t build on what’s been done in the past,” Freeman said. “What coach Kelly did here was tremendous: the wins and the success he had here. But I can’t come in here and say, ‘OK, I have to be Brian Kelly.’ I have to be Marcus Freeman.”

Even after two home losses to unranked foes, including the Sept. 10 stunner against Marshall. Kelly’s final five teams lost twice at home and never to an unranked opponent.

“I have to build this thing with the current players that we have, the great players we recruited in the past,” Freeman said. “But you’re still building your foundation from the ground up. We have to make it ours. We have to make it mine.”

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Where's the urgency?

Notre Dame, outscored 27-6 in the opening period this season, has yet to reach the end zone in the first quarter. Freeman wants to see that change.

“We have to start the game with more urgency,” he said. “We have to be better out of the locker room. We start the (Stanford) game three (plays) and out. The very first play is a penalty. We can’t start the game with a penalty.”

That false start on senior captain Jarrett Patterson led to the fourth punt in the past five game-opening series for the Irish offense. The only points it has produced on the first possession came via field goals at Ohio State and against BYU, the latter with a short field after the only interception by the Irish defense this year.

Stanford also marched 66 yards on its first series, marking the second time in three games a Notre Dame opponent started with a touchdown. Over the previous 12 games, Notre Dame’s defense had forced 11 punts and scored on an interception return (Georgia Tech) on its first series.

“We have to eliminate the errors,” Freeman said. “We have to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds and the penalties. When we have someone open, we have to convert. We spend endless amounts of time on ‘drive starters,’ how we want to start the game. There was a plan.”

Fourth and 'no'

Short yardage in general and fourth down in particular have been a challenge for the Irish offense.

Now tied for 106th in fourth-down conversion rate (40%), Notre Dame failed on a fourth-and-2 jet sweep to wideout Jayden Thomas from the Cardinal 5 late in the first quarter. Freeman didn’t regret passing on a chip-shot field goal but did sound remorseful after Stanford didn’t stack the box as expected.

“I hear coach (Tommy) Rees over the headset saying, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s not the look,’ “ Freeman said. “I probably at that moment should have called a timeout, but I still felt confident. They made a heck of a play. You can game plan all you want, but your opponent game plans, too.”

Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson are perfect in a combined 16 fourth-down tries this year.

Overall, Notre Dame is tied with Cal for 99th in scoring offense at 23.7 points per game.

Jaden Mickey still hobbled

Freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey remains day-to-day with a strained abductor muscle near his hip after missing the Stanford game.

Mickey and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (rib contusion) missed Sunday’s practice, but senior slot cornerback TaRiq Bracy was able to practice after missing Saturday’s game.

Ademilola, who left in the second quarter after just 15 snaps, is still dealing with some breathing issues but sustained no structural damage, Freeman said.  

Safety Ramon Henderson, who filled in at slot corner for 28 snaps, was able to practice Sunday after tweaking his ankle against the Cardinal.

Broadcast news

ESPN has exercised a six-day broadcast hold on Notre Dame’s Oct. 29 visit to Syracuse, meaning kickoff will be at either noon or 3:30 p.m.

The 14th-ranked Orangemen (6-0) are 13-point underdogs this week at No. 5 Clemson (7-0). The Irish, 24-point favorites at home against UNLV (4-3), meet Clemson on Nov. 5 in a night home game that has lost considerable luster.

UNLV (4-3) vs. Notre Dame (3-3) 

When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,660) 

TV/Radio: Peacock streaming, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 

Line: Notre Dame opens as a 24-point favorite  

Series: First meeting 

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.