Player-led meetings allow Notre Dame football to bring young talents along faster

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame defensive lineman Howard Cross III (56) takes down Boston College quarterback Emmett Morehead (14) after he threw the ball during the Notre Dame vs. Boston College NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — Whether in the corporate world or in a college football environment, “What do you know?” should never be a rhetorical question, much less an insult.

At least not if you want the group to succeed.

As Notre Dame football survived an 0-2 to start to reach Friday’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against No. 19 South Carolina, it increasingly leaned on contributions from younger players such as freshmen Benjamin Morrison, Junior Tuihalamaka and Jaden Mickey; and second-year talents Joe Alt, Blake Fisher, Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Prince Kollie.

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In part, that was because of a peer-mentoring system that includes player-run film sessions without the presence of coaches. There, even the rawest of young talents should feel empowered enough to speak up.

“It’s kind of like doing a presentation with a co-worker and not a boss,” fourth-year junior defensive tackle Howard Cross III said. “They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re fired for answering the wrong question.’ It will be OK, ‘This is what you’re supposed to say.’

“It kind of has that feel like, ‘These are my peers. I’m with the guys that are considered at my position.’ So, if you answer a question wrong, nobody is going to be like, ‘OK, get off the team!’ No, they’re going to tell you what to do, they’re going to tell you how to fix it.”

Nov 19, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Benjamin Morrison (20) celebrates after an interception in the first quarter against the Boston College Eagles at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Cross, part of the 2019 signing class, remembers feeling lost at times in unit meetings as he was surrounded by future NFL draftees. Seeing the benefits of peer mentorship now that he’s at the front of the room make him wonder how things might have gone if it had been in place sooner.

“I really wish I had it when I was a freshman,” Cross said. “Its definitely very, very helpful for the younger guys. You’re not going to get frowned upon. That’s why we have those meetings, especially for the younger guys. To get them integrated. It makes them feel a lot more comfortable.”

'They're not afraid' to 'Challenge Everything'

Part of the “Challenge Everything” mentality first-year coach Marcus Freeman has tried to instill for the Irish had this sort of free flow of ideas in mind. Even when things are working well, you’ll only find a better way if the entire group — including newcomers — is allowed to participate.

“You hope you create an atmosphere where young guys don’t hesitate to ask questions because in order to grow you’ve got to ask questions,” Freeman said. “We’re going to assume you know unless you ask those questions.”

And yet, even the biggest and strongest college football players in the land sometimes clam up when surrounded by others.

“That’s real life, right?” Freeman said. “Some kids, their pride doesn’t want them to be wrong. They don’t want to show the people in that room that they don’t know and so they don’t ask those questions.”

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That’s where peer mentorship comes in.

“I like the opportunity to have players lead video sessions because it shows those guys that are teaching what they know,” Freeman said. “It shows those guys that are in front of the room saying, ‘Here’s what you need to do,’ it gives them some player-led leadership and some experience for those guys that without coaches are always answering questions. Anytime that can happen, I always encourage it.”   

Fourth-year junior linebacker JD Bertrand, a team captain who has led the Irish in tackles two years running, enjoys the give and take with the next wave coming up behind him. In addition to Kollie and Tuihalamaka, that group includes freshmen Jaylen Sneed, Joshua Burnham and Nolan Ziegler.

“It’s just being able to look at (film) and have just players so guys can ask questions and they’re not afraid to have the coaches hear and not let the coach know that they don’t know necessarily their exact fit,” Bertrand said. “When we start putting different play-calls to different run plays, it’s nice to get the front seven and the safeties and be able to talk through it.”

Notre Dame’s JD Bertrand (27) rushes during the 2022 Playstation Fiesta Bowl Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Filling in the knowledge gaps

Mitchell Evans, who had the benefit of learning for two seasons under the most productive tight end in school history, is among those being asked to fill the massive void Michael Mayer will leave.

Nov 26, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Michael Mayer (87) celebrates his touchdown scored against the Southern California Trojans with tight end Mitchell Evans (88) during the first half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Best known to this point for the “Mitch-a-palooza” sneak, Evans is learning alongside freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes and third-year sophomore Kevin Bauman. Evans credits the player-run study sessions with flattening a steep learning curve for a group expected to block as well as it runs pass routes.

"It's been great because we had one (recently) after practice,” Evans said. “We went in for 30 minutes and watched a cut-up of different South Carolina fronts and even ourselves: ‘If it's this type of coverage and how we can attack the man that's guarding us. Do we stem it differently?’ We're learning off each other and bouncing ideas because there is always more than one way to attack a defense.”

More:How Mitch Evans carved his post-injury role in Notre Dame's offense

Evans, despite limited tight end experience in high school, was able to reach the field for some valuable experience as a freshman in 2021. He’s also on his second position coach in as many seasons with former West Virginia offensive coordinator Gerad Parker coming in after John McNulty was hired as the OC at Boston College.  

“There’s stuff that I didn’t really know coming in here,” Evans said. “As I’ve grown in the last year and a half, we all take advantage of it. We’re all bouncing ideas off each other.”

'Honest feedback'

Sophomore Deion Colzie, who came in at the same time as Evans, sees a similar dynamic in the wideouts room.

While former NFL receiver Chansi Stuckey encourages constant feedback like the rest of Freeman’s coaching staff, it’s still helpful when Stuckey leaves the room and the discussion is among peers.

“We are very confident in coach Stuck; we are willing to ask him anything,” Colzie said. “But I think also when we have those player-only film sessions, we are allowed to be more open and get another view on it. It’s your teammate. He wants the best for you as well, so he’s going to give you honest feedback.”

When the film session pairs receivers with defensive backs, the information exchange can prove even more valuable.  

“If you watch film with a defensive guy, you ask, what did he see from you there?” said Colzie, who was slowed in the season’s early stages by a PCL strain in his knee. “And you get the opposite end of the feedback as well.”

Colzie and freshman cornerback Ben Morrison pair up regularly in the film room. Not coincidentally, perhaps, all nine of Colzie’s receptions and five of Morrison’s interceptions came over the final five games of the regular season.

“We talk every day about what he sees and about what I see,” Colzie said, “and we’re giving each other tips and tricks on what we need to work on and what we could do better each rep.”

Third-year sophomore safety Xavier Watts, a converted wideout who practiced with the receivers after a spate of injuries during training camp, could give feedback from both the offensive and defensive perspective. For the second straight season, he also did his best work down the stretch.

“It’s a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and ask stuff you’re maybe not as comfortable asking when the coaches are around,” Watts said. “Getting different answers from the older guys who are more experienced, maybe it’s just a more comfortable environment.”

Asked why there would be that reluctance with a new-age coaching staff, one that generally seeks to empower rather than demean, the soft-spoken Nebraskan smiled.

“It’s probably just us as humans,” Watts said. “A majority of humans are just not as comfortable to really step out and just say, ‘I don’t understand something.’ As you get more comfortable around people, you start to be able to talk more.”

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

78th Annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl 

  • Who: No. 21 Notre Dame (8-4) vs. No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) 
  • When: Friday, Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164), Jacksonville, Fla. 
  • TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Notre Dame is a 4.5 -point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 3-1 
  • Last meeting: South Carolina won 36-32 in South Bend in 1984.