InsideNDSports - Notebook: Marcus Freeman's strategy for protecting the ND football roster
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Notebook: Marcus Freeman's strategy for protecting the ND football roster

Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman (center) has a strategy to protect his roster.
Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman (center) has a strategy to protect his roster. (Jeffrey Douglas, Inside ND Sports)

Perhaps the ugliest loophole in the ever-mutating name, image and likeness game inside the game of college football is something Marcus Freeman is fully prepared to confront.

Specifically, pirating players off of Notre Dame’s existing football roster with the lure of lucrative NIL deals and eased by the no-waiting facet of the transfer portal.

The first-year Notre Dame head coach has a multi-tiered strategy for the landscape-changing alteration to college sports, just days away from moving into its second year of existence.

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“You’ve got to take care of your roster, and it starts with the value of this education,” Freeman told Inside ND Sports on Monday. “From the minute you are recruited here, the minute you walk in these doors, you have to understand the value of your education here at Notre Dame. And that’s going to help prevent our players from leaving, too.”

Freeman’s predecessor, Brian Kelly, never ran away from ND’s high academic bar and matching admission hurdles during his 12 seasons in South Bend, but Freeman outright leans into it as an asset, starting on the recruiting trail.

To this point, the message is being well-received, as Notre Dame has the Rivals No. 2 class in the 2023 cycle and No. 1 in 2024.

“Our players are going to be able to benefit from name, image, likeness at Notre Dame as well as anywhere else in the country,” Freeman said. “I mean our brand is so big and so powerful, if you can’t benefit off the Notre Dame logo here, then it’s a shame.

“I think our players do. Our players will continue to benefit off name, image and likeness here, but also they have to understand there’s more to that when it comes to a Notre Dame degree.”

There’s a coaching element to Freeman's strategry as well — not being hesitant to play freshmen.

Not that Freeman would have been anyway, but taking care of the existing roster in the NIL/transfer portal era heightens the urgency to develop young players rather than incubating them.

“If they’re ready,” Freeman emphasized. “I want to make sure they’re ready. But the ability to play freshmen is so important, because it’s two-fold.

“One, we're going to demand that our players play at such a high level, give such a high effort, you’re going to have to play more than 11 guys on offense and 11 guys on defense. You’re going to have to roll guys in.

“We want to have 1-As and 1-Bs, guys that are in the game plan to play. The other aspect of that is to make sure that they’re involved in the game. They come here to play. If they’re ready to play, let’s play them.

“Even if the guy ahead of them might be better, we have to give the guy ahead of him a break, because we demand he plays with such high effort.”

The 12 June arrivals — 10 freshmen along with grad transfers Chris Smith and Jon Sot — have been working out and attending classes for two weeks. The veterans have been back a little longer.

The following is a rundown of the key roster developments with the start of training camp a little more than five weeks away (players report Aug. 4, first practice is Aug. 5).

June arrival Tobias Merriweather (5) is among the Irish freshmen who have impressed ND head coach Marcus Freeman.
June arrival Tobias Merriweather (5) is among the Irish freshmen who have impressed ND head coach Marcus Freeman. (Rivals.com)

Taking stock of the June-arriving freshmen  

NCAA limits and a commitment to a heavy recruiting schedule in June has kept Freeman from getting overly familiar with the newcomers, but several have stood out in his limited contact with them.

That group includes wide receiver Tobias Merriweather, tight end Eli Raridon, running back Gi’Bran Payne, offensive tackle Ty Chan and cornerback Benjamin Morrison.

“(Tight end) Holden Staes is just getting fully enthrusted into workouts, and physically he looks good too,” Freeman said. “Physically (Raridon) has looked really good. (Tight ends) coach (Gerad) Parker has said, ‘Hey, he’s got some really special traits to him.’

“You put it all together and go through it in fall camp and do it in a game, that’s a different story, But to have all that talent and have those kinds of traits physically and athletically, it’s exciting to see.

“Overall it’s a great group. I can’t wait ‘til we get the pads on for fall camp.”

  Holding steady at WR and RB  

Sophomore running back Logan Diggs’ timetable to return from shoulder surgery remains “September-ish,” per Freeman, with a similar one for sixth-year slot receiver Avery Davis (ACL) and perhaps an October return for grad senior wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. from foot surgery. Freshman running back Jadarian Price is out for the season after undergoing Achilles tendon surgery.

That could leave ND with three healthy scholarship running backs and six healthy scholarship wide receivers for Notre Dame’s Sept. 3 opener at Ohio State, though Davis vows he’ll be ready for the opener.

Freeman said there are no matches in the transfer portal worth pursuing and that there are no plans as of now to move players from other positions to provide more depth.

“I think we have what we have,” he said. “You’re going to have to really develop some unproven guys in fall camp and summer. That whole ‘come here and slowly progress as a freshman,’ not happening. I think you’re going to be thrust into some playing time — just because of numbers.

“I think we have some talented individuals that are young and unproven that can help us. And they’re going to have to help us if we want to have success.

“I think we’re going to have to be creative in utilizing the pieces that we have. And that’s going to be something that’s going to be interesting to see, how we are able to utilize and put the people we have, the talent we have, the best players we have in positions to create mismatches for the defense.”

Three-year starting center Jarrett Patterson (55) may end up at offensive guard this fall for the Irish.
Three-year starting center Jarrett Patterson (55) may end up at offensive guard this fall for the Irish. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

  Reshuffling the line?  

Jarrett Patterson is considered by some the very best returning center in college football, and by NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., the No. 2 draft prospect at his position.

But the rumors of the 6-foot-5, 307-pound grad senior moving to guard have plenty of substance to them, just not yet finality.

“We’re always looking to get our best five linemen on the field,” Freeman said. “That’s the context.”

Senior center Zeke Correll’s strong spring is what’s causing the Irish coaches to re-evaluate what was projected going into spring as a starting line (from left tackle to right tackle) as Joe Alt, Andrew Kristofic, Patterson, Josh Lugg and Blake Fisher.

Patterson missed spring football because of a torn pectoral muscle and Correll impressed unretired O-line coach Harry Hiestand in his absence. Freeman said Patterson is back to 100 percent already, ahead of schedule, so Hiestand can start experimenting to find his best five right from the start of fall camp.

“Jarrett is all for what’s best for the team,” Freeman said of the three-year starter. “And actually if you’re a center and you’re trying to get to the NFL, they’re going to want to see if you can play guard. If you’re a guard that’s trying to get to the NFL, they’re going to see if you can snap the ball and play center.

“And so it would really be probably a positive for him. But if it’s not what’s best for the team, we’re not going to do it.”

  QB growth curve  

The kind of transformative summers Freeman has heard about Tommy Rees having a as player in 2010, DeShone Kizer in 2015, Ian Book in 2018, he believes is happening with sophomore QB Tyler Buchner too and — for that matter — junior Drew Pyne.

“I think Buchner has everything you need – both of them do,” Freeman said. “They have exactly what you need. That was one of the biggest questions I asked (offensive coordinator) Tommy Rees.

“I said, ‘Do we have quarterbacks in our system, in our program right now that can help us win a national championship?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ So that kind of affected the way that we looked at the (transfer) portal.

“We said, ‘We don’t need to do anything with the portal, because we have those guys in our program. They're just unproven.’ I know Pyne’s played in the Wisconsin game, a little bit more against Cincinnati. Buchner had a very limited package last year.

“Until they show it in a game, there’s always that little bit of doubt. Until you can do it on a consistent basis in a game, that’s what everybody’s waiting for. I believe they both have it. I’m just excited to see them do it in a game, where they can create the belief in their teammates and everybody else.”

Linebacker JD Bertrand no longer has to wear a cast on his left wrist and is back to 100 percent for Notre Dame.
Linebacker JD Bertrand no longer has to wear a cast on his left wrist and is back to 100 percent for Notre Dame. (Jeff Douglas, Inside ND Sports)

Squibs

Senior linebacker JD Bertrand’s overuse last season and playing with a chronic wrist injury, serious enough to require offseason cleanup surgery, diluted ND’s leading tackler’s value to a lot of people on the outside looking in.

His head coach never shared that viewpoint.

And a fully healthy Bertrand has only reinforced that notion this summer.

“He’s doing great. He’s been doing everything,” Freeman said. “It's been great to have him back. He can play Mike or our Will. He’s certainly one of our best three in a position group that has a lot of talent and depth.”

• Freshman mid-year enrollee Joey Tanona continues a slow road back from a spring automobile accident that produced a head injury.

“I’m just making sure that the biggest thing is his health,” Freeman said of the offensive guard from Zionsville, Ind., “making sure his health is the most important thing for everybody in this organization.

“He took some pretty bad trauma from the accident to the head, so there’s days that are better than others. So we’re just kind of working through it with him, making sure everything we’re doing, we’re doing what’s best for Joey.”

• Grad senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola’s full recovery from offseason shoulder surgery means versatile junior Rylie Mills will be free to compete for a starting spot at field end and that freshman Tyson Ford can get work both at defensive tackle and field end in August.

• Junior defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (knee) tells Freeman he’s a month ahead of schedule in his recovery and could be eying an in-season return date instead of missing the entire 2022 schedule.

• Sophomore tight end Cane Berrong (knee) still hasn’t been fully cleared, but has been able to get some positional work in.

• Senior cornerback Cam Hart (shoulder) is expected to be full go by the start of August training camp. Freshman mid-year enrollee cornerback Jaden Mickey, meanwhile, continues to impress.

“He’s good, man. He’s a good player,” Freeman said. “He’s one of those guys you know right away, ‘OK, probably after a couple of practices that he’s going to help us out.’ I would expect him to have a big role for us.”

• Another freshman mid-year enrollee, offensive guard Billy Schrauth, is 100 percent after missing spring football because of winter foot surgery.

“I’d keep an eye on him,” Freeman said. “He’s ahead of the curve.”

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