Marcus Freeman has continually emphasized getting a win in the Fiesta Bowl over just about anything else at the moment. If No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) can beat No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2) on New Year’s Day (1 ET; ABC), the Irish head coach feels that will serve as “finishing as champions,” a phrasing he has echoed since his first meeting with the roster as head coach early in the month.
Right now, that focus puts his need to complete a coaching staff on the back burner. By no means is Freeman neglecting the positions of linebackers coach, defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator — the needs thus far — but he is also not letting them distract from bowl preparation, particularly as it pertains to not having a named defensive coordinator.
“We do a great job in our preparation,” Freeman said Wednesday afternoon. “That’s what I’ve been really focused on. What is the preparation?
“Because in practice right now, when we do live-ball periods, [defensive line coach Mike] Elston calls it. I’m the referee. I’m running around up and down the field now. I’ll be involved with some other things that we do defensively, but we’re still going to figure it out. Elston has kind of taken that role in practice. Here’s the game plan, call it. We’ll work hand-in-hand.”
Freeman stopped short of saying Elston will call defensive plays against the Cowboys, but he still has a week-plus to come to a conclusion there.
The rest of the coaching staff will almost assuredly have to wait until 2022, though not long into 2022.
“I want it to happen fast and want it to happen as fast as we can,” Freeman said. “But I’m not going to take away from the right fit for time. That’s the one thing I know. However long it takes to make the right guy, whoever the right guy is, however long that takes, I’m going to take it. But the sooner the better.”
Filling out the coaching staff is only one of many things keeping Freeman from focusing solely on coaching, a lesson in juggling learned quickly as a first-time head coach. Not only is there the ever-present need of recruiting, but there is also the re-recruitment of veterans considering jumping to the NFL or entering the transfer portal, and there is the respective monitoring of the transfer portal for any roster additions, and so on.
“Every time I want to sit down and truly focus on Xs and Os, there’s a lot of other things you have to do,” he said. “You have to be very intentional on when it’s football time and when it’s everything else time, so I’ve tried to make sure that I’m intentional in when I can study film and when I can study our practice.”
And, of course, as is the case for all of us, there is the ongoing distraction of the pandemic. Notre Dame was offered the choice of arriving in Arizona only two days before the bowl game, rather than the usual week, but Freeman turned down that allowance, instead putting faith in his players to remain vigilant while also rewarding them with some warm weather.
“You got to be smart,” he said. “We got to understand COVID is still out there, and I don’t care if you’re vaccinated, it’s still out there and we have to be smart in terms of what we expose ourselves to.”
The Irish will still get a few days off to go home for Christmas, despite the rising pandemic concerns and one bowl team, Texas A&M, already having to bow out of its game due to a locker-room outbreak.
“We talked about it as a staff, and we talked about it as a leadership committee,” Freeman said. “We have to be clear on our expectations with the players, and we are. We’re very clear on what we expect you to do when you leave, to be smart on where you go and who you’re around. I feel very comfortable we’ll be okay.”
YOU AND ME BOTH, MARCUS
“I never got a lot of sleep, but the little sleep I do get now, I’m waking up quite often thinking about things. That’s the one thing, there’s always stuff to do, something’s always on your mind.”
Who among us can’t relate with Freeman’s interrupted respite these days?
YOU AND MY FATHER BOTH, MARCUS
“I’m always the guy that walks around with a trash bag. Don’t throw your wrapping paper everywhere. Put it in a trash bag. [My wife has] always yelled at me, ‘Just enjoy this time.’ It’s going to be hectic, but we’ll enjoy it.”
Who among us did not or does not have a father with that same heavy-duty black garbage bag on Christmas morning?
FRESHMAN SAFETY Khari Gee TO TRANSFER
Gee was a late addition to the Notre Dame class of 2021, a somewhat-unexpected de-commitment from LSU at the last moment. At the time, the four-star safety was seen as a needed piece to shore up the depth in the Irish defensive backfield, a task eventually fulfilled by sophomore cornerback-turned-safety Ramon Henderson and sophomore receiver-turned-linebacker-turned-safety Xavier Watts.
Gee did not see any action in 2021, and he will now transfer, per multiple reports Wednesday night.
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It should be noted, Gee’s recruiting class could not take any official visits due to the pandemic. Many players signed at campuses they had literally never been, and that was not an impulse decision. It was simply the reality of the timeline.
Thus, it is entirely reasonable to expect an influx of transfers from that class, be it now or in another year.