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Entering his first season as Notre Dame’s head football coach, the area where Marcus Freeman needed to generate the biggest jumps were on offense. He's entrusted offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to build up that side of the ball, and success on that side will largely determine this season's success.

The checklist included, fixing an offensive line that allowed 35 sacks and factored heavily into a running game that averaged just 4.1 yards per carry and 143.8 yards per game, replacing a 1,000-yard rusher (Kyren Williams), the team’s leading wide receiver (Kevin Austin), and a quarterback (Jack Coan) who started all 13 games in 2021.

Freeman noted that the biggest strides so far in fall camp have come on that side of the ball. Notre Dame is showing growth in areas it needed to make the biggest jumps, and it was evident during the team's 90-play live scrimmage yesterday that Freeman said the offense won.

"I think it's the ability to run the football,” Freeman said of the reasons behind the unit's success in fall camp. “That's something that I've been really, really pushing on our offense and pushing really on our entire team is that we have to be able to run the football and stop the run. Because running a football to me really creates so much space in terms of the pass game.

“When a defense feels like they have to do everything in our power stop the run, being on the defensive side I understand that when you don't feel like you can stop the run at will, you try to do different things defensively, and all of a sudden that opens up the pass game,” Freeman continued. “To see our offense run the ball today and really do a good job of really being positive in the yardage in terms of running the ball, it was really good to see.”

The fact that Freeman has seen so much early improvement in the running game is good news on multiple fronts. For starters, the offensive line has been visibly better under new position coach Harry Hiestand.

The Irish also have not had a full complement of backs in camp. Junior Chris Tyree is the most experienced of the Irish backs this fall. The junior has 718 rushing yards and 129 carries to his credit over his first two seasons. But the other two healthy backs through the first two weeks of practice, sophomore Audric Estime and freshman Gi’Bran Payne, have a total of seven carries and 60 yards between them.

Sophomore Logan Diggs, who had shoulder surgery in April after an injury in the Blue-Gold Game, has been wearing a red jersey during practice, meaning he’s off limits to contact. Freeman said Thursday that he expects the red jersey to come off next week.

Quarterback Tyler Buchner is also another factor in the rushing attack. He ran for 336 yards and 7.3 yards per carry on 46 attempts as a “package quarterback” as a true freshman last season. Freeman likes what the sophomore has brought in the last few practices since being named the starter last weekend.

"There's that consistency amongst who's the voice in that huddle and who's the voice on the field with the ones,” Freeman said of Buchner's ascension into the starting lineup. “I think that's important, that cohesiveness, that consistency in terms of who's making the calls, who's making the checks, and knowing who's a quarterback. We thought it was really important to do it. I've been pleased with what I've seen. It's been two or three practices since we named him the starter. I've been really pleased with what I've seen."

As for the scrimmage itself, it was a 90-play live scenario that Freeman said he tried to make as competitive as possible. Competition has been a recurring theme for Freeman since he took over as head coach. He has tried to make as many practice situations as possible as competitive as possible, and Thursday was no different.

“The offense ended up winning the jersey scrimmage,” Freeman said. “They kept the blue jerseys. At the end of the day, it was because of turnovers. I told the guys defensively if you don't get takeaways, you're not going to win the jersey scrimmage. Offensively, if you don't turn the ball over, you will win the jersey scrimmage. There was only one turnover and the result is that the offense kept the jerseys.

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“Again, the decision making,” Freeman continued. “We had some big plays on offense today. Some balls downfield, Tyler threw some great balls downfield. We saw some guys make some big plays. Drew (Pyne) threw some balls downfield and made some good plays. Those are the things that, again, it all was created from being able to run the ball. You run the ball and it opens-up the pass game.”

With just over two weeks to go until September 3rd, things sound like they’re trending in the right direction.

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