Cal fans, even more Notre Dame perspective!
An interview with our old SB Nation friends at the Notre Dame site.
Why have just one interview with Notre Dame people (check out our Q&A with Blue and Gold) when you can have two?
One Foot Down got in touch with us and Nick sent good answers their way for knowledge sharing. Now here are answers from OFD editor Patrick Sullivan.
Write For California is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Q: How much time do you think Marcus Freeman will get to fix things in South Bend before the heat gets risen up?
Let me start by saying that although Notre Dame talks a big game in terms of their traditions and history of winning titles and saying they're always striving for a national championship, I think the current ND administration mostly just cares about the Notre Dame football brand and making sure that cash cow keeps rolling along healthily. It's why Brian Kelly was going to be allowed to coach for the next 10-20 years if he wanted, despite the fact he'd proven his ceiling as a coach who'd never win a national title. So I think as long as the head coach is a respectable face for the program and wins enough for the Irish to be in the conversation for the College Football Playoff most years and occasionally makes it there (performance in the Playoff be damned), he's given a good amount of leeway.
Of course, Marcus Freeman is now 0-3 as head coach, blowing a 28-7 lead in the Fiesta Bowl back in January and then this current 0-2 start he's had this season. So, if his teams keep up performances like these, he won't last too long here. Tyrone Willingham being fired after 3 seasons proved that a couple decades ago and Chuck Weis being fired after just 5 years despite his substantial contract proved that again 12 years ago -- you have to at least be pretty good to get more than 3-5 years in South Bend.
But Freeman's got a few things that will buy him at least 3 full seasons of time, if not more, barring anything catastrophic or immoral happening under his watch:
1. He's a first-time head coach, and AD Jack Swarbrick knew that when he hired him. The expectation was always that he would be learning on the job and probably not be great right away (although losing to Marshall at home was certainly not expected).
2. He was hired because he was a young, hungry, hard-working coach whom the players loved and who would maintain continuity with a perceived strong program culture -- and with everything he's done off the field and how he interacts with the team, it's clear he's crushing that piece of it.
3. One of the biggest selling points for hiring him was that he would recruit harder and better than Kelly, raising the talent level of the program to a place where hopefully playing Alabama or Georgia or Ohio State is no longer a matter of "well, they just have better players across the board" -- and so far (it's early, and NIL is complicating it) he's done a great job there. Even with some decommitments/wavering of top commits recently, his 2023 class still looks like it might top all of Kelly's recruiting classes on paper, and his 2024 class is off to a great start too.
So, I think Freeman will get at least three years to learn the job, bring in better talent, and start contending for a CFP spot. If we get to Year 3 and the team is still getting physically overpowered by Sun Belt teams at home, then it's time for Marcus to worry, and I wouldn't guess he would get past Year 4 or 5 with little progress made from now to then. With all that said, I do think the heat is rising right now on certain assistant coaches, that is to say one Thomas Kevin Rees. He's been QB Coach at ND for 5+ years now and this is his 3rd season as OC, so if he doesn't get this offense looking at least mediocre over the next 4-5 games, he could be looking for jobs come December.
Q: Would you attribute the early offensive struggles towards Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne or do you believe that it is more on the sum of the parts like the offensive line and the injuries to the likes of Avery Davis, Logan Diggs, Jadarian Price among others?
I think it's a mix of the two.
I'd definitely place it more so on the offensive line being so disappointing, as they have STUNK so far this season despite being a supposed strength of the team heading into the year. The interior is comprised of a senior and two grad students, all with previous starting experience, and they're getting absolutely manhandled by opposing defensive tackles, and whiffing on plenty of blitzing linebackers to boot.
Meanwhile, the tackle spots are manned by two guys in Joe Alt and Blake Fisher who started in 2021 as true freshmen and have been hyped up as potential 2024 1st round picks, but neither have been great and Fisher has been downright bad at times. Those two are young enough where I think the future is still quite bright, but the combination of all of that has been a line that gets moved backwards in both running and passing situations and makes life hell for a first-time starter at QB, providing no run support and instead delivering a constant threat of being hit soon after receiving the snap.
The other non-QB factor I want to mention is ND's WR depth, which is absolutely horrendous for a supposed blue blood football program, driven by bad recruiting, recent transfers out and position switches, and not-great development of the guys who stayed. The Irish currently have ~6-7 scholarship wide receivers IN TOTAL on the roster, or 7-8 if you count Matt Salerno, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship. With Avery Davis out for the year and a couple others battling/recovering from injuries, it's a pretty desperate and dire situation at an extremely important position in modern football. So the first-time starting QBs are dealing with that as well.
With all that said, I also think Notre Dame does not currently have a QB on the roster who's good enough to steer this program to a national title. Teams like Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State can all accumulate enough talent around them that they may not need an absolutely elite QB to win it all (although they often have one anyway...sigh), but I'd liken the Irish more so to Clemson or to being a Diet 2019 LSU in terms of being a program who maybe can't stockpile 5-stars at every position, but can bring in a few elite guys, develop a bunch of 4/3 star guys into studs alongside them, and then they add a generational QB talent to lead them to a championship. Tyler Buchner is still young and he's a really hard worker, but I don't think he's that kind of program-changing QB -- especially because his development hinged so much on being the starter all of this season (he missed his 2020 high school season due to COVID and mostly was brought in to run the ball in 2021, so he hasn't quarterbacked a full offense in game action since 2019). Pyne, as well, simply isn't a QB you can win a title with. Irish faithful are hopeful 2024 QB commit C.J. Carr can be that kind of player, but we're still a couple years away from truly finding out, and we all know 5-star QBs who pan out are dwarfed in numbers by those who do not.
So, as you can see above, it's really just a mess right now offensively for Notre Dame. They lack an identity, they don't have receiver depth, their QBs aren't able to play at the level they need to, and their offensive line isn't blocking for them even if they were. Add in Price's injury and some questionable play-calling and personnel decisions by Rees -- and now Buchner's injury -- and it could legitimately be a disaster offensive performance for most of this season with games against defenses like Cal, Clemson, BYU, and others still on the schedule.
Q: Is the Cal defense something ND is familiar with or will they have to face a defense they have yet to play?
I'll be honest, I don't know a ton about Cal's defensive scheme and am not a guy super knowledgeable on X's and O's in the first place -- I quit playing football after my freshman year of high school and will never pretend like I know enough to speak intelligently on something like this. I mainly got into blogging for the thrill of writing about funny player names and occasionally dabbing in mascot fan fiction.
With that said, I think Peter Sirmon has only faced Notre Dame as a coach in 2014 and 2015, when he was Linebackers coach at USC. For what it's worth, ND got smashed by USC in 2014 (49-14) and then beat them in 2015 (41-31), but I imagine that was probably not Sirmon's current scheme that the Trojans were running, at least exactly. Tommy Rees hasn't ever coached against Sirmon as far as I know, either, as he's spent almost all of his coaching career at ND starting in 2017, with brief stints at Northwestern and the San Diego Chargers before that.
So I can't speak to exactly whether ND has seen this kind of defense, but I do think this is one of the better defenses the Irish will see this season, outside of Clemson and Ohio State and maybe BYU. And considering how much ND struggled to do much of anything offensively so far this year and now don't have their starting QB, I'm skeptical how successful they can be against a very well-coached group that seems to play a no-frills, base defense and just execute really well. Hopefully the Irish staff made some changes since the Marshall debacle and we'll see some improvement from them this week, at least -- but I won't hold my breath.
Q: How would you characterize the energy surrounding the program at the moment?
It's a weird time -- for the most part, the vibes are pretty dark. Notre Dame has only started 0-2 seven times in the last century, with every instance except 1978 (9-3) and 2011 (8-5) ending up as losing seasons. This start has certainly taken most of the wind out of the fans' sails after an offseason that was incredibly enjoyable, as Notre Dame enjoyed the honeymoon period with Marcus Freeman saying all the right things and kicking ass on the recruiting trail.
That, of course, was preceded by the bad feelings and uncertainty of Brian Kelly leaving the program suddenly for LSU in late November. And although they never truly won anything of consequence during his tenure, postseason-wise, that Kelly departure was preceded by a 2017-2021 stretch under his coaching where the team went 55-9 and made 2 CFP appearances and earned a Fiesta Bowl bid, so it was a major kick in the gonads to lose a head coach to another college job after such a winning stretch.
So, it's been a rollercoaster for sure, and we're currently at the very bottom of a massive hill. ND fans are still clinging to the hope that Freeman's youth, charisma, recruiting ability, and defensive mind will pay dividends once he gets some head coaching things figured out, but the 2022 season has essentially been written off as a lost cause and many are now calling for some major changes to Freeman's staff, just 3 games into his time at the helm. Not what you want to see, and not super encouraging, no matter how much you tempered your expectations for his first year.
Q: Do you see any major differences in the Tommy Rees offense under Marcus Freeman versus Brian Kelly in terms of philosophy?
I would say the philosophy is largely the same, but the pieces he's working with differ in a few key ways (many of them are a direct result of mistakes he's made as QB Coach/OC, but still worth noting):
I think this ND team is executing significantly worse than past teams under Kelly, limiting what can get done. On top of that, the injuries to some key skill positions and the lack of receiver depth don't help either, so Rees is hamstrung by all of that.
Brian Kelly's last 4 seasons included 3 seasons of Ian Book -- the winningest ND quarterback of all-time -- and a season of Jack Coan, who was an experienced, reliable, and consistently solid QB (his lack of footspeed notwithstanding). Rees under Freeman had first-time starter Tyler Buchner, and now that he's done for the season, he has first-time starter Drew Pyne, who obviously did not beat out Buchner for the job in the spring/summer. A lot of this is Rees's fault as the QB coach for the last 5+ years, for sure, so he certainly dealt himself this rough hand with poor recruiting and limited talent development to speak of...but he just has less to work with under center this year than he did under Kelly, and that's the current reality.
I think Tommy Rees gets too smart/complicated with his offensive scheme for his own good, and so the "autonomy" he now has with Kelly not guiding his decisions is actually hurting the offense. Rees has gotten praise from guys like Sean McVay and is a super young OC at a premier program, and so I think he tends to get cute and call more convoluted plays than necessary instead of just simply getting the ball to his playmakers in space.
So I think the offense itself is mostly the same as before, but Rees has dug himself into a deep hole with how he's managed the QB room and the offense in general over the last few years, and now isn't maximizing the potential of the talent they DO have (Michael Mayer, Chris Tyree, Lorenzo Styles Jr.), leading to a complete failure as an offensive system. Something's gotta give this Saturday in terms of him changing how the offense operates.
Q: Who is a player Cal should know about, that we probably haven't already heard about? Preseason I heard a lot about Estime having a breakout season. Do you still feel confident about him?
I love Audric Estime and think he has a bright future at Notre Dame, as he's a BIG, powerful back with good feet and decent speed for his size, and he's just a true sophomore. But with how this offensive line has gotten pushed around so far, I don't think his power running skill set is useful for anything except maybe turning a loss of 2 into no gain.
Offensively, the first names that come to mind are Chris Tyree and Lorenzo Styles Jr. Not sure if those guys are too "known" for this question, but they were the first to come to mind. Tyree is the fastest guy on the ND team and has been criminally under-utilized so far this year (and was behind Kyren Williams on the depth chart the last two seasons). Here's a taste of what he's capable of, though:
Styles is a very talented sophomore receiver who ideally would be a really good WR2 right now, but instead is the #1 wideout by default. But he's quick, has good hands, and I think is going to have a really nice career in an Irish uniform.
Defensively, I would imagine you may know about DE Isaiah Foskey and S Brandon Joseph since they both got All-American hype in the preseason, but if not, they're both going to be taken in the first 3-4 rounds of the NFL Draft next spring and are easily the two most talented guys on the defense. Foskey's stat line last year was fantastic (52 tackles, 11 sacks, 6 forced fumbles) and Joseph, a transfer from Northwestern, has proven to be a hard-hitting leader on the back end of Al Golden's defense. Neither have flashed too much early in this season, but I expect that to change soon.
If you already knew about them, my answer is definitely DB TaRiq Bracy. He's a guy who, early in his career, was called into action due to some injuries and depth issues, and played really well as an underclassman. Then he completely lost favor with the staff with some rough play in his later years and got pushed back down the depth chart. But he returned for a 5th year this season and after rumblings in the summer that he looked really good, he's been probably the MVP of the defense through two games, leading the team in tackles for loss. He was fantastic in coverage against Ohio State's collection of 5-star wideouts, and was one of the only guys performing well against Marshall last weekend.
One final shout-out: Harvard transfer punter Jon Sot, who came in, seized the starting job, and has been a fan-favorite this season due to his competence in downing punts inside the 20, as well as for the amount of work he's been given with the offense being such hot garbage. Love me some Jon Sot!!!!
Q: What is the most interesting Notre Dame fact that only Notre Dame grads would know?
I'm not sure I agree with the premise that there are Notre Dame facts that only Notre Dame grads would know that are at all interesting to anyone outside the Notre Dame community, and I'm not sure I know that many facts that only ND grads would know, despite the fact they ill-advisedly gave me a diploma back in 2013.
What all that said, here are some quick-hitters that came to mind in terms of just aspects of Notre Dame campus life that other fan bases might not know:
Notre Dame's dorms are all single-sex (Catholicism!) and they have this thing called "parietals" which are essentially the rules around when members of the opposite sex can visit a dorm. On weekdays, all women have to be out of men's dorms by 12am and vice versa, and on weekends it's 2am. Anyone caught breaking parietals gets disciplined by the school and I believe after a few offenses it can lead to serious repercussions.
In the same vein, technically Notre Dame students are not allowed to have sex while students at the university (unless something has changed recently in the student handbook) -- like, even if they live off-campus, it's technically a rule. I don't think it's enforceable really, but it's a rule nonetheless (CATHOLICISM!!!)
Speaking of Catholicism, Marcus Freeman just joined the Catholic Church. Cal better watch out, he's got some powerful allies now that he didn't have a week ago.
Back to ND's unique and odd social dynamics: guys' dorms allow parties to be thrown in the dorm rooms, and beer is allowed to be drunk openly, as long as it's inside a dorm room and not in the hallway or a common space. I think the idea is it's safer for ND students to drink in the dorms than out and about in South Bend?
Unlike a lot of other schools, Notre Dame students primarily stay on campus in the dorms for most of their time as undergraduates. A lot will move off-campus for senior year, but a solid number will live in the dorms all 4 years, and it's rare for folks to be off-campus as a sophomore or junior (freshmen have to live on campus).
ND does not have Greek life, so the dorms serve as quasi-frats and sororities in terms of folks identifying strongly with them, having some very mild hazing as freshmen, having intramural sports on campus organized by dorms and with the dorms having their own colors, mascots, etc. It's especially funny because no one chooses their dorm as freshmen, but most will stick with that dorm, adopt its culture and customs and traditions, and swear by it for the rest of their lives. Shout out to Stanford Hall, Go Griffins, scraw scraw.
Every dorm has a chapel and regular mass celebrated in it (usually including a very casual weekly mass for the residents of the dorm where wearing pajamas is acceptable)
Notre Dame is the only school in the country, I believe, to have intramural football that is full pads/tackle. Each of the men's dorms has a team and the championship is played in Notre Dame Stadium every year.
Notre Dame also hosts the largest outdoor basketball tournament in the world every year, the Bookstore Basketball Tournament. It's a blast until your team plays the Holy Cross College basketball team and you lose 21-7 while your teammate tears his ACL just weeks before graduation (then it's amazing and hilarious).
The campus has a bunch of weird little traditions/myths -- e.g., if you walk up the main stairs to the main entrance of the Admin building (The Golden Dome) you won't graduate; never walk on the grass on "God Quad," which is the area right outside the Admin building and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart; a building in that same area, Washington Hall, is considered one of the most haunted places in the state of Indiana and is supposedly where George Gipp fell asleep drunk outside, caught pneumonia, and ultimately died, inspiring the famous Knute Rockne speech
This one is fairly well known, but I'll include it for anyone who hasn't been to the campus: ND has a 1/7 replica of the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine in Lourdes, France (where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Saint Bernadette on 18 occasions in 1858) and includes a stone from the original grotto in France on the right-hand side of the shrine. No appearances of the Virgin Mary have been reported at the Notre Dame replica, but it is one of the most unique and peaceful places on campus (if you're ever on campus, I insist you check it out and light a candle there, even if you're not Catholic, or even religious).
My apologies to the readers, as that was entirely too much ND fact sharing, but that's what I've got for ya.
Q: What are your most memorable Notre Dame fan experiences?
Essentially half of my ND-fan life has been spent watching Bob Davie, George O'Leary (briefly), Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis coach football, so memorable fan experiences have been either infrequent or skewing quite negative for a lot of my life. But the last 15-ish years have delivered a few really good ones, so I'll quickly list them out:
The entire 2012 regular season of football, which was my senior year and gave us a 12-0 performance after a 22-16 record the three years prior. We saw that team beat Stanford on an OT goal line stand in the rain, beat Oklahoma in Norman at a time when Bob Stoops never lost there, beat Pitt in a 3OT thriller where both teams did their best to lose, and beat USC in the Coliseum to clinch a berth in the BCS National Championship. Oh, and we got to watch Manti Te'o earn the Heisman Trophy (Johnny Football did not deserve it and I'll believe that to my dying days).*
*Note: I will not acknowledge what happened to the football program and its Heisman finalist in January 2013, as that was absolutely miserable (except for traveling to South Beach with your entire student body and tailgating at a national championship -- that ruled).
It's kind of pathetic but it was still awesome: the 2005 near-win over that Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush team...the game was electric, Bush Push or not.
Stomping/shutting out Michigan in 2014 in a game at the time that was considered the end of that series
Crushing USC in 2017, woo baby that was a fun one
Beating Clemson in 2020, even with the asterisk of Trevor Lawrence not playing
Some great ND basketball experiences: the 2015 ND/Kentucky Elite 8 game, the 2012 upset of #1 Syracuse, the 2013 5OT win over Louisville, etc.
Q: As a Notre Dame fan, who is the person you'd like to punch most in the face and why?
This is a really difficult question. Assuming there are no repercussions (because a majority of these people are probably capable of kicking my ass in a fight if I were to swing at them), here is a short list of people who can catch these hands:
The Deadspin editors who made that article focus on Manti Te'o "probably" being "in on it" without fact-checking and when he actually was just a victim of some creepy and elaborate catfishing before we all knew what catfishing was
Fielding Yost (I'll raise him from the dead just to kick his ass)
Write For California is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
"Shout out to Stanford Hall..."
That's a strong punching list. Good vibes