They bolted from the stretching lines to the Irish Athletic Center’s north red zone, forming two clusters around the numbers during Sunday’s practice.
Blue jerseys on one side. White on the other. Offense vs. defense. They awaited head coach Marcus Freeman’s competitive drill of choice. Notre Dame’s new boss quickly gave his players the orders: one-on-ones with receivers and tight ends vs defensive backs from the five-yard line, with quarterback Drew Pyne throwing. Losing unit runs a sideline-to-sideline sprint.
The jolt in energy had the place pulsing.
Freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. and classmate Ryan Barnes started it off. Styles shook Barnes on a crossing route, but dropped the ball.
Defense 1, offense 0.
Freshman receiver Jayden Thomas snared a pass in the corner of the end zone. Tied up, 1-1.
Sophomore cornerback Caleb Offord then blanketed senior receiver Matt Salerno over the middle. Advantage, defense. Two more freshmen, safety Justin Walters and tight end Mitchell Evans, were up next. Evans couldn’t corral a jump ball on a corner route.
Defense 3, offense 1.
Freeman signaled incomplete pass, blew his whistle and sent the offense to task.
Two practices into his tenure, this brief but impassioned contest is one of Freeman’s first visible tweaks as head coach.
“We call it our ‘opener,’” Freeman said afterward. “It’s a competitive situation, offense vs. defense, they don’t know what it’s going to be. I want to put the ball down and see our guys compete. If you lose, you have to run a gasser. It’s nothing more than continuing to develop that competitive spirit, that mindset that everything in our power is to win.”
It’s a wise mentality to hammer home. Especially in bowl prep practices. As much excitement over Freeman’s hire surrounds his long-term ceiling in this role, his stated objective in his first month on the job is to win the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State. The opener sparks an adrenaline rush from the jump.
So far, the defensive players have won both openers. Saturday, in the Irish’s first postseason practice that also served as Freeman’s first in his new job, the defense prevailed in lineman one-on-ones.
“It’s something new for us, but I really enjoy it,” defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “First of all, the brotherhood and camaraderie you get to see when you compete. It sets the tone of practice. Nobody wants to run a gasser. That’s what makes the competitive edge a lot more up there.”
It lingers too. Tagovailoa-Amosa spoke Sunday from a dais inside Notre Dame Stadium’s media room, his pride in the defense’s victories still on display. He shot a glance toward senior center Jarrett Patterson, who stood off to the side.
“Offense is currently 0-2,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said, grinning. “Take it easy on J-Patt when he gets up here.”
Patterson has run two gassers. He does, though, still appreciate the value in the openers and sees the team feed off the tone they establish. The deeper they go into bowl practice, the more beneficial he thinks they’ll become. Same goes for the meat of spring practice, fall camp and the season.
“The great thing about this opener is we haven’t practiced for two weeks, it’s easy to go out there and be excited,” Patterson said. “But practice seven, eight or nine, these openers will keep that energy high. That’s the biggest thing Coach Freeman is trying to do.”
And nothing elicits energy and urgency like a fight-or-flight moment.
“If I have a chance to make a play, I have to make the play,” Freeman said. “That’s what I try to reiterate to the team. When your opportunity presents itself, you have to make the play.”
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