New coach Marcus Freeman liking his first Irish spring

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – A third of the way into his first spring practice as Notre Dame coach, 36-year-old Marcus Freeman likes what he is seeing from the Fighting Irish.

“I love the way they are flying around,” Freeman said Saturday following the fifth of 14 practices ahead of the annual spring game April 23.

Notre Dame is coming off an 11-2 season and No. 8 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 rankings.

“I love what are offense is doing trying to establish the run game and the play-action pass – they are so multiple,” Freeman said. “Defensively, we’re doing a lot of different things. I think our kids are grasping what our coordinators are doing on both sides of the ball.”

It’s been a whirlwind couple of months for the first-time head coach who was elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach shortly after Brian Kelly surprised Notre Dame by taking the head job at LSU on Nov. 30. Freeman’s first game in charge was a 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl after which he spent time on the road recruiting.

In the 75 days between the end of the 2021 season and the first day of spring drills, the returning players and 12 incoming freshmen have become acquainted with eight new members of the coaching staff.

Among them Al Golden, Freeman’s successor at defensive coordinator and linebackers coach who arrived days after directing the Cincinnati Bengals’ linebackers in their 23-20 Super Bowl LVI loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 13.

“My buddies in coaching are like, `You’re on Week 32 now.’ The season just kept going,” joked the 52-year-old Golden, whose spent 10 years as a head coach at Temple and Miami. “There will be a break here soon, but right now we’re pushing, and the kids are responding.”

Golden likes what he sees from several returnees, including 6-foot-5, 260-pound senior hybrid end Isaiah Foskey, who had 11 sacks last season All of Golden’s linebackers, led by J.D. Bertrand, Jack Kiser and Bo Bauer, are being asked to learn multiple positions.

“That’s going to make us strong in the long term and it helps them develop a conceptual mindset of what’s going on around them, which is important,” Golden said.

His new charges like what Golden brings to the table.

“You can tell (Golden’s) been around the game a long time – he knows what he’s doing,” said 6-foot-2, 229-pound senior linebacker Marist Liufau, who missed last season with a broken leg. Bertrand stepped in and led the team with 101 tackles despite playing with an injured wrist that required postseason surgery.

Golden likes all the things Liafau can do and he sees some of the same versatility in another native Hawaiian, 6-foot-2+, 245-pound junior Jordan Botelho.

The coaching staff turnover was considerable on the offensive side of the ball.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor and tight ends coach John McNulty left, and Freeman almost lost 29-year-old offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, a former quarterback under Kelly who drew considerable interest from other programs.

Rees has free rein to run the offense but he needs a new starting quarterback to replace Jack Coan (3,150 passing yards and 25 touchdowns with a 65.5% completion percentage). Sophomore Tyler Buchner and junior Drew Pyne both have three years of eligibility remaining and valuable playing experience from 2021.

Buchner ran for 336 yards and three TDs and the two combined for more than 500 yards and five touchdowns passing, and Rees believes both are good leaders.

“Drew’s always had that – he has that energy that people gravitate to,” Rees said. “Tyler has it in him. He’s ultra-competitive. They are both hungry and eager to get better and learn.”

Their top target returns in 6-4+, 251-pound junior tight end Michael Mayer who had a team-high 71 receptions for 840 yards and seven scores in 2021.

The Irish need to replace all-purpose running back Kyren Williams. Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs and Audric Estime will carry the load behind an offensive line being rebuilt by a familiar face: 63-year-old Harry Hiestand, who mentored four first-round NFL draft picks during his previous stint (2012-17) under Kelly.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.