As is often the case when discussing Notre Dame football, how you feel about the Marcus Freeman led Irish after his first month at the helm depends much upon your perspective and what lens you choose to view things from.
Certainly there are justifiable reasons for concern in the short term such as the lack of collective production out of the wide receiver group or the entirety of the Marshall game debacle. At the same time there are justified reasons for optimism in the long term after the impressive offensive performance the Irish delivered in Chapel Hill last week and the resolve the team has shown after a rough start to the season .
While there is much nuance to navigate and grey area to ponder when analyzing the infancy stage of the Freeman era, I do feel that there are some knowns that we can count on as we transition into the second phase of the season.
Let's discuss them.
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Known 1- Marcus Freeman Is Settling In
Sep 10, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman leads his players out of the tunnel before the game against the Marshall Thundering Herd at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Being a first time Head Coach is immensely challenging for anyone, let alone someone under 40 years of age who's first job comes under the enormous microscope that is perpetually focused on Notre Dame Football. From inheriting a flawed roster in key areas, to a brutal week one matchup vs a title contender in Ohio State to losing his starting Quarterback Tyler Buchner for the year to injury game two, it is safe to say Coach Freeman is in the "paying your dues" phase of the Coaching maturation process.
Yet in spite of these challenges and a very shaky first two weeks which justifiably had folks asking some tough and uncomfortable questions, it seems as though the team is starting to stabilize, unify and begin to find itself. Its amazing what a winning streak will do for morale and a narrative shift, isn't it? It has been an intense first month for Marcus Freeman, he's learned some tough lessons but overall has kept his head up and navigated some rough early seas. A great sign of things to come.
known 2- Notre Dame's QB Conundrum
Sep 24, 2022; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Drew Pyne (10) runs with the ball in the second quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
After a shaky start under unfortunate unexpected injury related circumstances, Drew Pyne has settled in as the starting quarterback. While undersized, he's tough as nails and is a player his teammates and fans alike want to see succeed. He is making good decisions, commanding the offense and distributing the ball on time and safely. I cannot ask any more of Drew Pyne than how he is playing right now.
In the long term however, the quickest path and a necessity for Notre Dame to rise to the level of the playoff game winning elite teams, the Irish must stabilize the quarterback room and feature a player with a truly elite physical frame and practical athletic talent ceiling. This is the one thing that has been missing even throughout Notre Dame's impressive run of solid football the last 5 years.
known 3- Offense Will Be A Work In Progress
Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Audric Estime (7) runs as he is tackled by Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau (44) during the first quarter at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
While its wonderful that the offensive line has come to life in the last 7 quarters and have improved quite dramatically from weeks one and two, the Irish offense overall is going to be a work in progress all year. The lack of proper Wide Receiver development, recruiting and retention from the previous regime will limit what this offense can do and be until the next couple recruiting cycles help this group catch up numbers and skill wise.
What is the ceiling for this offense under such limited capabilities the rest of the year with some terrific defenses heading Notre Dame's way? We wait and see. Notre Dame will take an honest look at what they are and can be the rest of the year and should lean into what works and try to be perfect at it. Right now that equates to a dynamic power run game and a quick hitting pass offense.
Known 4- Defense Is Still Your Backbone
Sep 18, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (7) celebrates after a sack in the fourth quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Throughout Notre Dame's run the last five seasons of notching 10 or more wins in each, one constant remains. The defense remains the backbone of the program. No, it hasn't been perfect by any means this year, but the defense overall is much closer to being a playoff caliber unit than the offense is and its not a close race. Notre Dame will rely on this heartbeat the rest of the year.
While it seems unfair to keep asking for more out of this unit, the defense must find a way to create more turnovers the rest of the year to assist the offense as much as possible with field position and points. Look for the defensive line to continue to get better and keep and eye out for some potential depth chart changes in the linebacking group and some promising young talent in the secondary to gain confidence.
Known 5 -The Buy In
Sep 24, 2022; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Lorenzo Styles (4) celebrates with tight end Michael Mayer (87) and wide receiver Jayden Thomas (83) after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Notre Dame found themselves swimming against the current right out of the gates this year. After all the hype, all the buildup, all the excitement of the newness of a new era of Irish Football, they found themselves at 0-2 and down their starting signal caller after only two weeks. They could've folded, they could've made excuses, but they didn't, they fought back and found ways to get in the win column.
In many ways, this may be the most applicable big picture takeaway when analyzing how a coach has his team performing 4 games into a 6 year contract with the old Coaches' players. The buy in is there. The players want to win for each other, for Coach Freeman and for the fans. They want to improve. This is where personality matters, being genuine matters, approach matters, instilling belief matters. These immeasurable traits Marcus Freeman naturally possesses may be his most useful navigational tools moving forward as he continues his tenure in a job that ages one harder than being a two term US President.
Story originally appeared on Fighting Irish Wire