SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The message couldn’t be heard from a distance as Marcus Freeman addressed Notre Dame after its first fall practice of his first season as head coach. But the intent of whatever Freeman had to say was obvious, the head coach pleading with his arms and raising his voice enough for “your job” to be heard from afar multiple times, a demand that the Irish do better at finishing theirs next time.
For as much patience as there may be from the outside for a charismatic first-year head coach, Freeman offered none to his team Friday morning. The season opener at Ohio State may feel a long ways off. It doesn’t to Freeman, who liked plenty of what he saw on opening day of preseason camp, just not enough to gloss over the stuff he didn’t, including when Blake Fisher and Zeke Correll were pulled for heat exhaustion.
“It’s got to be hard. It’s not changing. We’re not changing what we’re doing,” Freeman said. “We had a couple guys that couldn’t finish practice today. And it’s their job to make sure they’re available for practice. It’s the trainer’s job to make sure they protect the player. And so I was trying to send a message to those players … hey, whatever you have to do to make sure you’re available for practice.
“If they’re looking for us to pull back, it’s not going to happen, they have to continue to do whatever it takes to make sure they’re ready to go.”
Notre Dame practiced for two muggy hours on Friday morning. The Athletic was there for all of it, minute by minute, rep by rep, for a running account of what Notre Dame showed and what it might mean moving forward.
9:30 a.m. — Notre Dame begins its first stretch lines of the season as the video board inside the Irish Athletics Center shows highlights of last season. There’s a lot of Kyren Williams in those videos, with plenty of Jack Coan and Kevin Austin Jr. All three must be replaced. Even Jonathan Doerer’s game-winning field goals against Florida State and Virginia Tech hit different as Notre Dame turns the page.
9:34 a.m. — Freeman moves through the entire roster during stretch lines, keeping up a routine he started as Brian Kelly’s defensive coordinator. He makes physical contact with every player before every practice. Dressed in a dark blue Notre Dame long sleeve T-shirt with “Play Like A Champion Today” on the back, Freeman makes quick work of his tactile responsibilities. He says he won’t change as a first-time head coach. This part hasn’t.
9:35 a.m. — Read what you want into stretching, but the list of players at the front of the lines says something about leadership. This year’s line leaders: Justin Ademilola, Houston Griffith, Jarrett Patterson, Josh Lugg, Jack Kiser, Jayson Ademilola, Bo Bauer, DJ Brown, JD Bertrand, Isaiah Foskey and Marist Liufau.
9:37 a.m. — Conspicuous by their inclusion in practice: Avery Davis and Logan Diggs. Davis tore his left ACL last November and took plenty of reps on Friday. Diggs underwent shoulder surgery after the spring game and wore a red jersey. Later in practice, he barreled into Griffith at the goal line in a team period. Freeman said he expects both to play a part at Ohio State. Davis being back wouldn’t be a surprise. Diggs would be.
9:48 a.m. — Skill position players break into groups, with quarterbacks throwing swing passes and defenders tasked with getting off the turf to tap them down as Freeman watches. Somehow Michael Mayer gets paired against long snapper Alex Peitsch. There is no contact. The best defensive rep was freshman linebacker Nolan Zeigler lining up a running back. The best offensive rep might have been Audric Estime leaving Prince Kollie with nothing but air. Estime looks much quicker than a 227-pound running back should be.
9:53 a.m. — The roster splits into position groups, with the defensive line working indoors for now. Jordan Botelho and Josh Burnham work with the defensive ends. Donovan Hinish is wearing No. 41, the same number as his older brother Kurt, who is now in camp with the Texans. First look at Harvard grad transfer Chris Smith, who is a squat nose guard compared to the other defensive linemen, shorter than Jacob Lacey but bigger. The first unit seems clear: Isaiah Foskey, Rylie Mills, Jayson Ademilola and Howard Cross. Bringing Lacey and Justin Ademilola in with the second group (more on that later) feels unfair to the second-team offensive line.
9:57 a.m. — Outside, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand works with the left side of the line: tackle Joe Alt, guard Jarrett Patterson and center Zeke Correll. By Hiestand’s standards, he’s reserved. But it’s early. Or maybe he just likes what he sees from the line in the opening minutes of practice. That trio could be a massive upgrade from the left side of the line last year in experience and fit. Also, the coach is better.
10:00 a.m. — The wideouts work with receivers coach Chansi Stuckey on footwork and breaks, with some back-shoulder fade receptions mixed in. Notably (or perhaps not) Deion Colzie takes the first reps in a group that’s mostly walk-ons. The other receivers — Braden Lenzy, Jayden Thomas, Lorenzo Styles, Tobias Merriweather, Avery Davis and Greg Mailey — work in a separate group. After just a couple of minutes, Colzie joins that “varsity” group.
Merriweather appears to be every bit as bouncy as Notre Dame hopes. With the exception of trying to catch a back-shoulder throw with one hand (he dropped it), Merriweather looks like a receiver who knows how to do this. Some first-year players need a few days to figure out how to actually practice. Merriweather looks like he already knows, at least today.
10:01 a.m. — Some unfortunate offensive lineman just did something wrong. It’s not clear who. Hiestand is no longer reserved, using vintage vocabulary from his first stint as Notre Dame’s line coach. That’s more like it. Feels like the unofficial start of practice.
10:11 a.m. — The good news is that Diggs is in a red jersey instead of sidelined entirely. The bad news is Notre Dame has three fully available running backs practice No. 1: Chris Tyree, Audric Estime and Gi’Bran Payne, whose No. 13 jersey and build elicit some Lawrence Keys vibes. Tyree and Estime rotate through the first team. Payne gets some second-team work, plus some punt return reps.
It’s not that Notre Dame can’t put together a game plan with three available running backs. But grinding through a month of preseason may wear down this trio if position coach Deland McCullough can’t put up guardrails.
“You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to rotate them,” Freeman said. “It’s a challenge. You know, Coach McCullough has a huge challenge because he’s a competitor just like the rest of us. And he wants to put the best guys in there.”
There’s no cavalry coming for Notre Dame’s running backs. This is the group McCullough must develop. There’s potential. There will also be limitations, even as Notre Dame looks to establish a versatile run game.
10:19 a.m. — Remarkable to see Eli Raridon at full-go less than a year after an ACL tear in high school. Wearing No. 9 doesn’t pop quite like it did for Kyle Rudolph — he remains perhaps the most physically impressive Day 1 freshman in the past two decades — but Raridon is put together. The coaching staff saw Tyler Eifert potential during Raridon’s recruitment, which maybe doubles as a reminder Eifert actually took a redshirt before turning it on. Raridon and Holden Staes both look like they’ll be hits eventually. The fact the offense seems to use them both at the same time in team drills is indicative of a staff ready to find out what it’s got.
10:21 a.m. — Notre Dame breaks into a 9-on-9 period focused on the run game, minus cornerbacks and receivers. Marist Liufau, Bo Bauer and Jack Kiser line up at linebacker. Turns out Liufau’s snaps are limited by lingering effects of last camp’s injury. Houston Griffith and DJ Brown are the safeties. Foskey, Jayson Ademilola, Mills and Cross make up the defensive line. The drill offers some glimpse of how new defensive coordinator Al Golden sees his linebackers. JD Bertrand, Prince Kollie and Junior Tuihalamaka make up the second team. Jaylen Sneed, Nolan Ziegler and Will Schweitzer make up the third group. Bertrand gets first-team work in place of Liufau later in practice.
10:27 a.m. — Receivers and corners are going one-on-one in the red zone. Deion Colzie manhandles Ryan Barnes, the kind of big-receiver-playing-big that Notre Dame needs. Lorenzo Styles beats Philip Riley for an easy touchdown from Drew Pyne. Barnes comes back and gets Colzie on the next rep. Matt Salerno beats Houston Griffith for a one-handed touchdown from Tyler Buchner.
10:37 a.m. — Crowd noise. Or airport runway noise. It’s not clear. But it’s loud. If this isn’t designed for Ohio State, it’s at least a move to get the players to figure out how to communicate when the coaches can’t exactly help. Buchner continues work with the first team with Mayer, Tyree, Davis, Thomas and Styles. It’s not hard to think about Notre Dame’s poor prep for the noise at Georgia three years ago as the Irish turn up the decibels. In the two periods with noise on Friday, there’s just one obvious false start.
The defense lines up in nickel during this period, with the secondary Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis and TaRiq Bracy at nickel, plus DJ Brown and Brandon Joseph at safety. Jaden Mickey, who Freeman called out after practice for a strong offseason, is the second-team nickel.
10:46 a.m. — McCullough puts the running backs through blitz pickup and ball security drills. There’s a new toy for the position, a football with a cable attached to the tip, connected to a rod in McCullough’s hand. The running backs coach tries to yank the device, pulling the football out. None of the running backs lose their grip. McCullough complains of a sore shoulder.
10:52 a.m. — Practice moves to 7-on-7 work in deep red zone, around the 10-yard line. The period starts with Buchner hitting Mayer for a touchdown to the left of a formation where he’s the boundary receiver left with trips right. Buchner hits Thomas for a touchdown on the next snap. Then he rips a ball to Styles. On the next rep Buchner can’t find the open man and throws the football away. On the final play, Jack Kiser makes a strong pass breakup on a Buchner ball intended for Kevin Bauman.
If there’s a takeaway from Buchner’s performance Friday, it’s that he has grown from a quarterback who was sometimes aiming the football to one more decisive about where it’s going. He rips throws now. One of the things to watch with the sophomore was how he commanded the offense as a leader. First impressions are good in that department. Buchner looks like a starting quarterback, not somebody who still needs to be referenced by his recruiting ranking. It’s all a step forward.
11:02 a.m. — Drew Pyne gets some work, which includes a touchdown pass to Tobias Merriweather in front of Xavier Watts. The freshman wideout doesn’t make a ton of plays in scrimmage settings, but he fits in. Pyne wraps up the period with a touchdown to a wide-open Salerno after a coverage bust between Justin Walters and Jaden Mickey.
11:06 a.m. — Blake Fisher’s day is done, replaced at right tackle by Michael Carmody. Eventually Zeke Correll will give way to Pat Coogan at center. Best not to read too much into opening day conditioning on a muggy morning. But it’s a surprise two of the better conditioned linemen on the team are pulled.
11:08 a.m. — Tyler Buchner’s pass is tipped by TaRiq Bracy and picked off by DJ Brown. Live, it’s hard to know what happened and why. After practice, Freeman reveals the pick was on a bad route, not a bad throw:
“I don’t know who it was running the route, kind of didn’t run the route exactly right. And I looked at Tyler and I said, ‘Hey, that’s why you got to hold people accountable,’ because from my point of view, I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, that was a bad throw.’ No, it wasn’t a bad throw,” Freeman said. “We got to make sure we run the right route. And so a lot of things fall on those quarterbacks’ play.”
11:09 a.m. — Howard Cross gets penetration up the middle. For how much Cross has been evaluated for he lacks, namely typical nose guard size, it might be time to shift the conversation to what he is: incredibly disruptive. If he’s Notre Dame’s fourth starter on the line, Al Washington could have a very good unit ready to go.
11:10 a.m. — Justin Ademilola works at right defensive end and blows up the play so badly that he’s subbed out. There won’t be many (any?) better second-team defensive ends on the schedule this season. Outside of Ohio State and Clemson, there might not be many superior starters, either.
11:12 a.m. — Best throw of the day goes to Pyne, who is flushed to his right and throws a beautiful ball to Braden Lenzy for a diving touchdown. Jaden Mickey had quality coverage on the play, but a great throw beat it. Pyne’s ability to put that ball in that space while moving at that speed is just what Notre Dame needs from the junior quarterback, regardless of his depth chart position. Freeman can talk about quarterback competitions — he’ll name a starter sooner than later — but more impactful is both quarterbacks elevating their games. Notre Dame doesn’t need Pyne to start, but it needs him to be better than he was last season or in the spring game. He’ll throw a pick later in practice, but Pyne had a good first day.
Pyne’s second-best throw might have actually been a read. Working with the red zone, he looked right for options but didn’t find any. Instinctively, Pyne flipped his eyes left and lofted a touchdown to Jayden Thomas in the back of the end zone. The throw was good. The process was better.
11:17 a.m. — Howard Cross blowing up another play, this time getting between Jarrett Patterson and Pat Coogan. Chris Tyree has no chance on the handoff.
11:20 a.m. — Steve Angeli hits Eli Raridon for a touchdown, underscoring one of the changes between the first day of last year’s camp and this one. It’s not that Brian Kelly didn’t give freshmen work early in camp, but Freeman seems to give them more today. Angeli, Merriweather, Payne, Billy Schrauth, Aamil Wagner, Tyson Ford, Benjamin Morrison and all four freshman linebackers saw plenty of reps. Some of those were even with the second team.
“You’re gonna have some threes in there or young guys that don’t exactly know every intricate detail of the offense or defense,” Freeman said. “Give them a chance to have success.
“You’re not able to evaluate freshmen if they have no clue what they’re doing. And so it’s a double-edged sword because we got to come in and make sure that we’re smart in terms of what we’re asking to do. They got to find a way to catch up to where those other guys are.”
11:23 a.m. — The Ohio State/747 engine noise is back, this time for full 11-on-11 work. Buchner remains with the starting offense and hits Mayer for a touchdown. On the second snap, Buchner steps right and fakes a pitch to Tyree, only to keep it and score up the middle. If there’s a play that jumps out Friday, this might be it. Notre Dame didn’t have a red zone run threat from its starting quarterback last year. Now it does. The best way to help Buchner the passer? Get defenses keyed on Buchner the runner. He’s a walking play-action fake.
11:24 a.m. — Howard Cross again. The nose guard gets pressure up the middle. Buchner is forced to throw the ball away.
11:25 a.m. — Buchner gives to Estime going left, with the sophomore showing enough speed to get to the pylon on a wide run. Seeing Estime as more than a battering ram is a positive. Notre Dame needs him to be more than a short-yardage back given the state of the running back depth chart. Estime has had a good first day.
11:29 a.m. — Drew Pyne gives to Logan Diggs, who hits his run up the middle, straight into Houston Griffith’s chest. For Diggs to actually seek out contact, even if the coaches don’t want it, is a positive. When Freeman says Diggs can be a factor against Ohio State — he was expected to miss the first month of the season — it’s a ray of light for the run game. Even if Diggs can’t get all the way back by opening weekend, it feels like his full return will come in September.
11:31 a.m. — Angeli wraps up the practice with another touchdown to Raridon, who beats Jaylen Sneed to come wide open at the back of the end zone. Not that he’s in the mix for playing time, but it’s rare to see freshman quarterbacks have any command of the offense when they’re running with the third team. Credit Angeli for being prepared.
11:35 a.m. — The players take a knee around Freeman, who doesn’t let the shortcomings of Day 1 go by unaddressed.
“This is where we start, right?” Freeman said later after practice. “The beautiful thing about it is I’ve been around different places where you really start slow, and then you build up. And then that second and third week is the hardest, you know, longest practices.
“But the thing about is right now we’re starting out of Ground Zero, long practices, tough, hard practices because we have to develop fast, man. We got to be ready to roll right out of the gate.”
(Photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today)