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Notre Dame Notebook: Marcus Freeman Talks Firsts, Tobias Merriweather, Game Communication And More

Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman addressed a number of topics after earning a win over California and getting ready for North Carolina
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NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Marcus Freeman has already moved on after his first career win. The Notre Dame football coach acknowledged at his Monday press conference that he has already gotten a lot of career “firsts” out of the way. First career bowl game, first bowl loss, first road loss, first home loss, and now his first career win, which of course also came at home.

He shared his thoughts on many other topics as well.

Players Of The Game

Freeman said he only names players of the game after wins, so Saturday was the first time he has named players of the game for the three phases of the team. Running back Audric Estime took offensive honors; defensive end Isaiah Foskey got the defensive award and safety Houston Griffith garnered special teams recognition in the win over California.

Game Preparation

A year ago at this time, Freeman was still a defensive coordinator, but he is now four games into his tenure as a head coach. That means more than just prepping weekly game plans for one side of the ball. It means being the caretaker for the entire team.

Freeman has to have a hand in all aspects of getting ready for a new opponent every week and that also means different interactions on a weekly basis with his offensive, defensive and special teams coaches. That involvement has also already evolved just four games into his head coaching career.

"The first couple weeks, being able to, I was spending a lot of time coaching the scout team and trying to make sure the offense and defense were getting the looks they needed,” Freeman said. "I spend time with both staffs. I’m a voice, hey if there’s a question or if I have a question to ask (or) answer question.

"Last week, in practice I spent a little bit more time with the defense, not because I felt like they needed more (but) for me to be able to help the guys, the guys that were playing more. To be able to say, ok, hey, I know exactly what Johnny’s supposed to be doing. Let me make sure that I’m watching him and we’re fitting the ball perfectly or everybody’s executing their assignment.

"My role off the practice field was to really ask questions for the coaches," continued Freeman. "I want to know why, and that’s what I spent a lot of time asking coaches. Why is this happening, why isn’t this happening to entice some discussion? It wasn’t comfortable for any of us, but it was what was needed and what will be continuously needed for our program to enhance. We have to have those conversations and, really, watch the practice together and say, okay, why isn’t this person doing what he’s supposed to do or why is he? Those questions that need to be asked after practice.”

Offensive Line Improvement

Notre Dame’s offensive line seemed to start to turn a corner in Saturday’s win over Cal. There were early issues, like too many false starts and the failure to pick up a linebacker blitz on the game’s opening drive. As the game wore on the line got more push in the running game, especially in the second half, against a good defensive front. They also protected quarterback Drew Pyne better in the game’s final 30 minutes as well.

"You’re starting to see some consistency out of that group,” Freeman noted. "(Jarrett Patterson), obviously, this is his second game, but those guys being together for three games, they’re getting better. They’re improving. The fundamentals, the execution, the techniques they’re playing with are improving.

"They have a long way to go," continued the first-year head coach. "They do. They’re an extremely talented group, but they’re still young. I know it’s week three, but they’re still young. But they’re really starting to become cohesive and execute the way we want.

"There’s teaching, it’s funny, you watch the film and there (are) teaching plays left and right. He's got to do this for us to take a one (or) two-yard gain into a five- or six-yard gain or the six-yard gain into a 12-yard gain. That’s the beauty of it. They did, they played much better, and they have a lot of room to grow.”

On The Young Linebackers

The Fighting Irish have a group of young and talented linebackers who haven’t played much to date. Freeman updated their progress.

"(Jaylen) Sneed and (Nolan) Ziegler, probably are still a little bit away,” Freeman estimated. "Right now, they’re on scout team. Junior (Tuihalamaka) played a little bit on Saturday. I can see him getting more and more reps. Prince Kollie is another guy that, to me, will continue to get more and more reps as we move forward, but those opportunities come from practice.

"That’s been my challenge to those guys that might not (be) playing as much as they want; what are you doing in practice?" Freeman continued. "If you’re making mistakes in practice, then coach is going to play guys when it matters the most in those close games, the guys they trust the most.

"So, those guys have got to continue to gain that trust in practice, but they’re extremely talented players that I know will help us. How soon? We’ll see.

On The Veteran Linebackers

The veteran linebackers have been inconsistent through Notre Dame’s first three games. Last year’s leading tackler, JD Bertrand, is currently the team’s third-leading tackler, behind defensive lineman Howard Cross and safety DJ Brown.

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Bertrand and Jack Kiser each have 17 tackles, Marist Liufau has 12 and Bo Bauer has seven. The group also has just one sack and 3.5 tackles for loss between them.

"Marist (Liufau), still, he’s coming back from an injury,” Freeman stated. "We’re still trying to be smart in terms of how much we rep him. You look at Kiser, who’s moving from Rover, to at times when we’re a nickel team he’s playing inside linebacker, so he’s still getting adjusted.

"JD Bertrand’s been solid, but obviously he’ll be out for the first half of this game. So I’ve been pleased overall. Is there a lot to improve at? Absolutely. That goes for every level of defense, from D-line to linebackers to the DBs, but overall, I’ve been pleased with the group. I think we all have room to grow."

On Tobias Merriweather

The heralded freshman wide receiver made his career debut in the first half Saturday against Cal. He played a handful of reps but was not targeted by Pyne in the win.

"Tobias is a guy that we wanted to play even more than we did,” Freeman explained. "All of a sudden, when the game is close and the game’s on the line, you’re going to play the people (who) right now, you trust the most.

"So, what does that mean? Guess what, our coaches have to earn more trust in Tobias. So, we’ve got to be better coaches so that we can have more trust in Tobias and Tobias has to meet the coaches halfway and make sure he’s doing the exact things he needs to do in practice and then those reps in the game, that there is a trust factor that we know if Tobias is in there he’s going to get the job done, he’s going to do exactly what he’s supposed to do.

"Listen, he’s a freshman. It is tough for any true freshman, let alone (one who) just gets here in June to learn a system and in the first three games be ready to go and play 100 plays. He’s playing some plays and I know he’ll continue to play more and more, but I think both sets of coaches and players have to find a way to continue to gain trust in each other.”

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