Nothing Clemson-specific about signal stealing in college football, Marcus Freeman says

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman downplayed the need for extra precautions against signal stealing this Saturday night against fourth-ranked Clemson.

That’s because Notre Dame and its first-year coach must guard against that sport-wide trend on a weekly basis.

“That’s a college football thing,” Freeman said Thursday on his video teleconference with reporters. “That’s every week. It’s not a Clemson thing.”

Deservedly or not, coach Dabo Swinney’s perennial championship contender has earned a reputation for signal stealing over the years, with Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham the most recent to make that public allegation.

“Clemson steals signals,” Cunningham told reporters in July, “so it’s kind of hard signaling the plays and they’ve got 60 coaches looking at the signals.”

Louisville, which blew a 7-point lead in the final quarter of a 30-24 home loss to Clemson last season, plays at Death Valley on Nov. 12. First, however, the Tigers return to Notre Dame Stadium, where they lost 47-40 in double overtime two years ago.

“Competitive advantage is something all teams will try to do,” Freeman said. “If you let teams steal your signals, they’ll do it. We have to every week have a plan for that: Continue to switch signals, switch who is live and have a great plan in terms of how we’re going to be able to communicate with the guys on the field.”

The Notre Dame offense uses three signalers on every play: backup quarterbacks Steve Angeli and Ron Powlus III and walk-on wide receiver Greg Mailey. There’s also a numbering system on a T-shaped stand and the sort of poster-board placards seen on sidelines throughout the sport.   

Baseball’s Houston Astros, now one win away from their second World Series title in the past six seasons, were fined $5 million and later fired their manager and general manager in the wake of an electronic sign-stealing controversy that went public in late 2019.

The NCAA, however, has yet to crack down on signal stealing in college football.

“If you don’t think it’s real,” Freeman said, “you’re probably getting your signals stolen.”

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Good news on Gabe Rubio

Nothing is amiss with Gabriel Rubio, the reserve defensive tackle who played just three defensive snaps at Syracuse. One of those produced a first-quarter tackle for loss on running back Sean Tucker.

“He’s healthy,” Freeman said of Rubio. “He didn’t play as much as he had the previous two games. We’ll have a plan for him this game. A lot of it is determined on some of those guys in front of him.”

A fast-improving redshirt freshman, the 6-foot-5, 295-pounder from St. Louis averaged 30 defensive snaps over the previous three games. His career-high was 44 defensive snaps against Stanford, when he made five tackles and was credited with a quarterback hit while filling in for injured senior Jayson Ademilola (rib contusion).

“Our D-line room is pretty deep,” Freeman said. “There’s some older guys that are playing well that will get the majority of playing time. Gabe has such a bright future for this football team. I’m excited about what Gabe Rubio will do, hopefully this game and many games after.”

Uiagalelei, Mickey familiar foes

Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei doesn’t have fond memories of his 439-yard, two-touchdown explosion in his previous trip to Notre Dame Stadium. That remains his career-best passing total, but it came in a loss.  

“Yeah, I played great,” the junior told reporters this week, “but the biggest thing for me was the loss. We had the chance to win the game. Hopefully, this time the outcome is better.”

Uiagalelei, who passed for 371 yards and five touchdowns in a 51-45 double-OT win at Wake Forest in September, remains the starter despite being lifted for freshman Cade Klubnik in Clemson’s last game, a 27-24 win over Syracuse on Sept. 22.

Uiagalelei starred at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., where he passed for five touchdowns in a 52-14 playoff win over Jaden Mickey’s Centennial Huskies. Mickey, the Irish freshman cornerback who returned last week after missing two games with a strained abductor muscle, made his first high school interception against future Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

Young won the Heisman Trophy last season.

Mickey opened his college career against another former Inland Empire quarterback, CJ Stroud of Ohio State and Rancho Cucamonga High.

“It’s definitely an advantage coming from Cali, going against some of the best quarterbacks,” Mickey said after enrolling in January. “It was just fun. It was a fun experience as a 13-, 14-year-old playing against those guys and now watching them be great at the next level.”

Notre Dame (5-3) vs. No. 4 Clemson (8-0) 

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, Ind. 

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

Line: Clemson opens as a 3½ -point favorite  

Series: Clemson leads 4-2 

Last meeting: Clemson won 34-10 in 2020 in the ACC Championship game at Charlotte, N.C.   

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