PHOENIX - While managing the entirety of the Notre Dame Football operation, Head Coach Marcus Freeman will undoubtedly have a hand in monitoring the defense, the side of the football he’s mentored since becoming a graduate assistant coach for his alma mater, Ohio State, in 2010.
Since that time, Freeman has worked exclusively as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Today against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, his influence will be dragged across both sides of the football despite his allegiance to defense. With that in mind, here are two areas to watch where Coach Freeman’s decisions will be on center stage.
Without the services of star safety Kyle Hamilton as he prepares for the NFL Draft, Notre Dame could rotate more younger players as it gets a good look at what’s next in 2022. In doing so, Notre Dame still needs to win first and foremost, and that starts with Xavier Watts.
The one-time wide receiver from Omaha, Neb. is turning heads in practice. Does Coach Freeman allow Watts 30 or more snaps against a good but not great Oklahoma State offense?
He could stick with a more veteran player like DJ Brown or Houston Griffith and stay with the status quo. He could also just rotate Watts with fellow sophomore Ramon Henderson and call it a day.
If Watts is as good as the reports say he is, however, then Coach Freeman should absolutely play Watts far more because of how he’s practiced. For what it’s worth, Watts is one of the most talked about players from bowl practices.
In addition to Watts, the running back position is also missing its star in Kyren Williams heading off for the NFL so that leaves young players attempting to pick up where he left off like freshman Logan Diggs, sophomore Chris Tyree, and freshman Audric Estime. There’s also another runner, of sorts.
That would be freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. He’s very nimble and he definitely possesses open-field speed. Perhaps he sees more snaps today as he gets ready to take over the quarterback job in 2022, but Coach Freeman must find a way to do that while also winning the football game.
If starting quarterback Jack Coan gets hot, so be it. Coach Freeman needs to stick with him outside of a few situations where a running quarterback would be useful in short yardage circumstances.
How Coach Freeman handles the quarterback position, like with any college football head coaching job, will be crucial to his and Notre Dame’s overall success. Let’s see how he does with Buchner's snaps today.
As for the running backs, there is a plethora of talent still in the backfield with Williams departed. Watch Diggs take to the air to show off his skills.
Diggs is very much like Williams in terms of his ability to hammer the middle of the field, and also be a very good receiver out of the backfield. He’s likely to see 15-20 touches today. While Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees will likely dictate who and when goes into the game, at some point it’s still Coach Freeman’s team.
In a critical moment during a fourth and goal, or perhaps fourth down and one, will he call on a true freshman to tote the football or will he go with a more veteran player like Tyree or even throw the football?
Defensive Game Plan
This area, without question, will have Coach Freeman’s fingerprints all over it. He’s been a very aggressive coach this season, but did run the not so successful 3-3-5 passive defense during a few games and it did not turn out well.
Will Freeman stay completely clear of that specific play call today against Oklahoma State, a team that likes to pound the football and averages 181.2 yards per game on the ground?
Playing passively could play into the hands of the Cowboys, even if just for a few plays.
Notre Dame fans have been clamoring for him to leave it out of the playbook completely. Play downhill, play fast, attack.
In coordination with aggressive play, how will the cornerbacks play pre-snap against the Cowboys? Will the Irish cornerbacks play some bump-and-run or just play off coverage?
This question is aimed at how Notre Dame defends senior receiver Tay Martin. He’s sitting at 70 receptions for 942 yards and seven touchdowns. However the Irish decide to cover Martin will help to play a big role in determining the final score.
The Irish could even role a safety to his side of the field part of the time, and it could also mix up which defensive backs play one-on-one coverage against him. Pay particular attention to Martin, as he’s the key piece in Oklahoma State’s passing offense.
Overall, Coach Freeman will still be a defensive coach more than anything else today. He’s probably going to allow Coach Rees to handle the offense and do his job accordingly. He’s still going to be involved with the defense far more than the offense. He’s just now going to have a hand in personnel decisions and play calls in connection with how to handle the Oklahoma State offense. Let’s see how he does.