Marcus Freeman is thinking about just about everything tied to Notre Dame except its next opponent. The No. 21 Irish will focus on No. 19 South Carolina and the Gator Bowl (Dec. 30; 3:30 ET; ABC) soon enough, but not just yet.
Freeman said he and his coaching staff spent about 10 minutes on the Gamecocks late this week, after they returned to South Bend from a week bouncing around the country recruiting. With the early signing period beginning in less than two weeks, opening Dec. 21, keeping the No. 3 recruiting class in the country intact is the first priority this month.
“That’s the development of your roster, development of your team,” Freeman said Saturday. “The enhancement of your roster is so important. It’s so vital for the continued success of our program.”
The second priority is the same relative task pertaining to the transfer portal, but until Notre Dame has pulled some players in from it this offseason, that need fulfillment is a bit more abstract to gauge than a recruiting class with 20 four- or five-star commits even after four-star running back Dylan Edwards flipped his pledge to Colorado this week.
The most notable transfer portal move for the Irish thus far has been junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s entry into it. Freeman supported Pyne’s choice, one that came after the two had honest conversations about Notre Dame’s plans at quarterback this offseason. The Irish are actively seeking an incoming transfer, and Freeman knew that would be the case long before Pyne left the team.
“You have to be as honest as you can be,” Freeman said. “So I told our coaches, we have to be honest with our players. We had to be honest with — I love Drew Pyne, part of that love for him was to say, ‘We’re possibly looking into the transfer portal to take a quarterback.’
“I could have not told him and lied and said, ‘We’re not going to take a quarterback,’ and wait until after the (bowl) game and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to look for a quarterback.’ But that’s not what we’re built on. We’re built on real, authentic relationships and having those honest conversations. Drew made the best decision for Drew.”
Without Pyne, Freeman has been forced to consider one particular aspect of prep for the trip to Jacksonville at the end of the month. Who will start for Notre Dame at quarterback?
Both sophomore Tyler Buchner — coming off a shoulder sprain that cost him the last 10 games of the regular season and required surgery — and freshman Steve Angeli have taken starter’s snaps in practice this week, Freeman said. Buchner simply participating in the majority of these December practices stands out.
“Right now, I want all those guys getting reps and rolling,” Freeman said. “Tyler hasn’t played football for a long time, so just getting him in there with a bunch of different groups of receivers and O-linemen and let him get acclimated.
“But he’s looked good. He’s done a good job in practice. Steve has done a pretty good job, too.”
Freeman does not expect either Buchner or Angeli to be full-contact in practice between now and Dec. 30, simply not a risk he wants to take with a quarterback this time of year. A touch more indiscretion from the Irish defensive line may be tolerated, though.
“Sometimes [quarterbacks] run that ball or those D-linemen, they might get yelled at for touching the quarterback,” Freeman said. “But you’re going to get bumped enough.”
Hadn't checked the #NotreDame-South Carolina line in a week. Down to the -2 or -2.5, though still in Irish favor.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) December 11, 2022
Aside from the quarterbacks, focusing the first few practices last week on younger and inexperienced players was its own form of bowl prep at two positions in particular. With tight end Michel Mayer and defensive end Isaiah Foskey opting out of the bowl game — Freeman said he does not expect any further opt outs, having asked those possible players to take care of it last week — Notre Dame needs to find some comfort with new receiving options at tight end and a new pass-rush threat in Foskey’s stead.
“You’re not replacing Michael Mayer’s production and Isaiah Foskey’s production with one person,” Freeman said. “Those guys are going to be future NFL draft picks. … You replace their production through different ways, through multiple people, through schematic changes that you make.”
Freeman highlighted sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans and freshman Holden Staes, neither of whom has caught a pass this season, and junior Vyper end Jordan Botelho and freshman linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka. If one or both of that latter pairing finds success against South Carolina, it could assuage some Irish wonders about who will provide depth along the defensive line in 2023.