If Marcus Freeman taking over as Notre Dame’s head coach before the Fiesta Bowl was a bit unorthodox — and it was — his first spring practice with the Irish was a bit more normal. Notre Dame began its spring work Thursday with an overhauled coaching staff and a new quarterback, though Freeman did not explicitly decare his new quarterback.
That was to be expected after the first of 15 spring practices. Freeman may be a first-time head coach, but he is already finding the rhythm of coach-speak. As it applies to the team as a whole, he said the things every fan wants to hear.
“I have a vision and identity I want for our team, and that’s to be a team that can run the ball and stop the run,” Freeman said Thursday morning. “I believe in our O-line and our D-line being the foundation of our team. I’m excited to see if that can become our identity. That’s my vision.”
Those lines are largely set, torn pectoral for fifth-year center Jarrett Patterson and shoulder repair for fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola aside, but the Irish do not have a set starting quarterback, even if all winter’s presumptions leaned heavily on rising sophomore Tyler Buchner.
“You look at it and you have two guys that have playing experience,” Freeman said. “Those are the two guys that are getting reps with the ones in Tyler Buchner and (rising junior) Drew Pyne. It’s going to be a great competition.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with the quarterbacks just as a whole to try to continue to earn their trust and then get to know them.”
That has included during drill work. Freeman may be more used to watching the defense and the linebackers, in particular, calling that his “comfort zone,” but he is enjoying watching the quarterbacks even more these days.
“They have the funnest drills,” he said. “So I told [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] that there’s going to be a lot of times where I’m coming to the quarterback drills just because it’s fun.”
When watching those drills, Freeman is looking for the basics, nothing outlandish. Both Buchner and Pyne are comfortable on the run, though Buchner more so, but that is not a demand from Freeman. In a way revealing his background as a defensive coordinator, Freeman simply wants his quarterback to not put his defense in a compromising position.
“I believe in a quarterback that, yes, makes good decisions, but also has an ability to escape,” he said. “We don’t need a dual-threat as much as a quarterback that’s able to escape that situation.
“Those are the things I’m looking for. Who is taking care of the ball, who is making good decisions, who is able to extend plays at times when the pocket maybe fails.”
All that said, Freeman’s wants for his quarterback may not be the distinguishing factor. Comparing him to his predecessor will get old quickly, but one sentence Thursday underscored the differences between Freeman and former Irish head coach Brian Kelly to such an extreme it cannot go unacknowledged.
“I’m no quarterback guru,” Freeman said. “I’m not afraid to admit that.”
So he will turn over the starting quarterback decision to Rees, further proof of the autonomy Rees was promised when he spurned Kelly’s offer to join him at LSU back in early December.
“My role as the head coach is to let those guys (know) I understand how difficult a position they are in. Use me as a resource to help you,” Freeman said. “That’s why every week we spend time together, we have a quarterback meeting with just me and the quarterbacks because I want them to know I’m a teammate.
“I’m going to lean on Tommy Rees as somebody who is deciding who is the starting quarterback.”
The more things change — a first-time head coach among the youngest in the country who intends to be hands-off in naming a starting quarterback — the more they stay the same, with Notre Dame working through spring insisting a quarterback competition is afoot.
Ademilola will miss all of spring practice after shoulder surgery to repair an injury that plagued him toward the end of last season. He will be joined on the sideline by rising sophomore center Pat Coogan who underwent a “meniscus repair,” according to Freeman.
Fifth-year running back C’Bo Flemister, listed on the spring roster for the last few weeks, is not on the roster, Freeman said, then clarifying Flemister will not be returning to the roster, either. After Flemister spent last season going from a discreet suspension to the doghouse to the injured list, it was always a surprise to see him opt to return to Notre Dame for a fifth season in a crowded running back room.
Another vague roster question concerning a veteran was answered in the opposite direction. Fifth-year cornerback Tariq Bracy is firmly back with the Irish. Most players weighing an extra year of eligibility took to social media to declare their intentions. Bracy never did, leading to some speculation about his status.
“He’s gonna be here,” Freeman said. “He’s excited to have a great senior year.”
Even when Notre Dame trotted out the players returning for fifth years for interviews in January — a welcome spurt of content not provided in the past — Bracy was not included.
“I think when we did some of the media days with those guys, he had some class,” Freeman said. “But he’s fully planning on being here and is ready to go.”
Despite his at times up-and-down career, Bracy provides some experience and depth at an uncertain cornerback position.