Head coach Marcus Freeman returned to his weekly press conferences by beginning with news about the players of the game for the USC rout: Audric Estime on offense; Xavier Watts on defense; and Jadarian Price on special teams.
Freeman’s first response dealt with a question about the mental break for players last week. That brief hiatus came after practicing earlier in the week.
“I was really pleased with those three days of practice. I think they’ll be ready to roll … We have to make sure we’re ready to go and ready to perform on Saturday.”
Asked to compare the Irish’s first four games with the last four contests, Freeman pointed to one simple aspect.
“It’s the execution. We gotta be better on third down, but part of being better on third down is being more efficient on first and second down.”
The idea that clarity among players was a key aspect of the USC win, Freeman offered praise to his defensive coaches.
“The biggest thing for the USC game was they played fast because they were clear on what exactly their expectation was. They were relentless and you gotta give credit to Al Golden, our defensive staff for getting our guys prepared.”
Freeman was asked whether he expects different looks because of Pitt’s in-season lineup changes, especially behind center.
“Obviously with the new quarterback (Christian Veilleux), you really look at what they’ve done all season to now what they’re doing with the new quarterback. Similar, it’s a similar offense but I think the packages might be tailored to what he does well.”
The Notre Dame transfers (C’Bo Flemister and Shayne Simon) now at Pitt led to a question of whether Freeman’s past comments about such departures would trigger any emotions on Saturday.
“It hurts when you see people leave who don’t have their degree. That’s what really hurts. When guys are able to get their degree from this place and go on and look for an opportunity to play elsewhere, I’m so happy for those guys. Both of those guys got their Notre Dame degree and I’m proud of what they’ve done here at Notre Dame and what they’re doing at Pitt.”
The prospect of overlooking a 2-5 Pitt squad was dismissed by Freeman.
“You work too hard to overlook any opponent and the opportunity to play this game on a Saturday. Our guys will be fired up. They’ll be ready to roll in Notre Dame Stadium versus a team you put on the field.”
Jadarian Price’s thrilling kickoff runback against USC earned praise for him after Freeman also offered accolades to the Irish special teams.
“Our kickoff return has been really close. One or two blocks away from opening and taking one back, It happened a couple of times in the USC game. We had some good returns, one or two blocks that kept us from taking it all the way. That last return was huge for our program for that unit, special teams. He is a talented player that we have such a belief in what he’s going to do for this team.”
Freeman offered positive updates about the prospect of Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse contributing on Saturday.
“They’re going to be as close to 100 percent this week than they’ve been all year.”
That led to a question about Deion Colzie’s status and the prospect of integrating Tobias Merriweather more into the offense.
“With Deon, he will probably start some individual (workouts) this week … As far as Tobias … we’ve gotta find ways to get him the ball. We’ve gotta take some shots downfield with Tobias, with his body, his length, his speed.”
Freeman was asked about his expectations about what to expect from Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“I think of tough, I think of physical, I think of aggressive. Especially his defense is something I’ve studied for years going back to my time at Cincinnati.”
Indicating that no changes will be made to the starting offensive line, Freeman also saw the value of bye week practices that allowed for reserves to get more of an opportunity.
“We’ll stay with the five we have. They’ve all been healthy and practiced well. I was good to see some of those young guys, Billy (Schrauth) and Ashton Craig and some of those guys get a lot of meaningful reps in practice.”
Dealing with the possibility of disgruntled players is something that Freeman says is an ongoing process.
“I’ve always challenged our coaches to continually have a conversation with the guys in your room so you know and they know exactly where they stand and why they stand there. I think it’s important that you don’t wait until bye week to have that conversation.”