For new coach Freeman, Notre Dame success starts in trenches

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Prior to his first spring practice as Notre Dame head coach, Marcus Freeman didn’t mince his words to his Fighting Irish.

“I kind of told them in the team meeting, I have a vision and identity I want for our team,” Freeman recalled. “And that’s to be a team that can run the ball and stop the run. I believe in our O-line and D-line being the foundation of our team.”

To accomplish that, the 36-year-old Freeman has turned to a couple of familiar faces to get the offensive and defensive lines ready for the season opener Sept. 3 at Ohio State, Freeman’s alma mater.

Back as the offensive line coach, a position he held under Freeman’s predecessor, is 63-year-old Harry Hiestand. Freeman then hired former Ohio State defensive line coach Al Washington to replace Mike Elston, who left for Michigan, his alma mater.

Following the eighth spring practice, Freeman praised both coaches.

“I’m really, really pleased with both sides,” Freeman said. “They’ve been physical, tough. They’re making each other better. I don’t even think it’s technique or scheme as much as the mentality that I can whoop the man across from me. And I think both of those guys (Hiestand and Washington) brought that in here.”

Hiestand was an easy hire for Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. In his first stint with the Irish under Brian Kelly from 2012-17, Hiestand tutored future NFL first-round draft choices Zack Martin (Dallas 2014), Ronnie Stanley (Baltimore 2016), Quenton Nelson (Indianapolis 2018) and Mike McGlinchey (San Francisco 2018). As the team’s quarterback in 2012 and 2013, Rees was protected by Hiestand’s heroes.

During 2017, his final season with Notre Dame before re-joining the Chicago Bears as offensive line coach for a second time, Hiestand’s charges, led by All-Americans Nelson and McGlinchey, won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top line after producing 269.3 rushing yards a game.

Martin and Nelson have been among the visitors who have returned this spring to help Hiestand put his current charges through their paces.

“They want to be a part of what coach Hiestand is trying to instill in us,” said 6-foot-6, 305-pound right guard Josh Lugg, who has returned for a sixth season and moves over from right tackle, opening it for Blake Fisher.

Another true sophomore, Joe Alt, returns as a starter at left tackle, senior Andrew Kristofic returns at left guard and senior Zeke Correll is at center while center Jarrett Patterson, a graduate student, mends from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle. Junior tackle Tosh Baker and sophomore guard Rocco Spindler also have impressed Hiestand.

“The message of what (the former players) learned when they were here and the importance of the details in how we block is tremendously important to our success,” Hiestand said. “Their visits are so valuable.”

The 37-year-old Washington spent the last three seasons as Ohio State’s defensive line coach but worked under Freeman when both were at Cincinnati in 2017.

“We have a lot of experience in the (defensive line) room,” Washington said. “The thing I appreciate is how well they recognize there is another level and that’s what we’re in the hunt to accomplish.”

Isaiah Foskey, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound end, turned down an NFL opportunity to return for his senior season after leading the Fighting Irish with 11 quarterback sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles in 2021.

“My main focus is just to be an all-around defensive player,” Foskey said. “Everyone knows I can pass rush. I want to be able to stop the run. I like (Washington’s) coaching style. He focuses on pass rushing and run stopping. That’s why I came back.”

Foskey is one of eight linemen with extensive playing time from last season. Washington has been particularly impressed with the work inside and outside by junior linemen Rylie Mills and senior tackles Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross III. Sophomore tackle Gabriel Rubio has impressed with his size (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) and nastiness.

“There’s a group of older guys that have taken the bull by the horns and become leaders,” Washington said. “We have to keep building. Greatness is found in the details. That’s our mentality.”

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

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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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.