Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame's off week gives receivers a chance at health, needed for an inexplosive group

Notre Dame v Duke
Notre Dame v Duke

No. 14 Notre Dame sent its players on their own for much of its idle week, practicing through last Wednesday before giving the roster the weekend off. The Irish coaches had some of the same luxury, spending the first half of the weekend recruiting and the second half largely off, most notably watching their children play flag football.

But early last week, they took a look at Notre Dame’s own tape, and one thought stands counter to what the Irish (6-2) put together in the last month.

“We have to continue to build confidence in taking shots (downfield),” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “Especially playing the defense we play this week.

“You’re going to have to take some shots and some play-action shots. We’re continuously looking at the things we do.”

Notre Dame has managed three pass plays of 30 yards or more in its last four games. Just nine of 121 pass plays in the last four games have yielded explosive results, 7.4 percent.

Some of that tied to the quality of opponents — Ohio State, Duke and Louisville with defenses ranked No. 5, 18 and 26, respectively, by SP+ measurements — some of it was the nature of the defensive blowout of USC, and some can be ascribed to the injuries continuing to bother Irish receivers Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse, both slowed by hamstring worries.

Note the word choice: continuing.

“They’re going to be as close to 100 percent as they’ve been all year,” Freeman said. “... Both of those guys will be as close to full-go as you’ll see all year. That’s a week-to-week basis.”

Freeman said Thomas actually regressed from Louisville to USC, while Greathouse’s recovery has been a bit more linear.

With them slowed — not to mention junior Deion Colzie recovering from a knee scope and sixth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno out for at least the regular season — Notre Dame has had three healthy scholarship receivers at its disposal, plus freshman Jordan Faison, now on a football scholarship after playing at Louisville required his lacrosse scholarship be flipped to football.

Among them, sophomore Tobias Merriweather has managed just two catches for 23 yards in the last four games, arguably the best Irish deep threat rendered an afterthought.

“We talked about this today in our meeting,” Freeman said. “We have to try and find ways to get him the ball and take some shots down the field with Tobias’s body, length and speed. We have to try and continuously find ways to truly take shots and not look for the wide-open perfect play.

“That’s what at times we can end up doing. We have to take shots and believe he’ll make a play on a 50-50 ball. We have full faith that he will.”

That remains to be seen, but until it is, Notre Dame’s offense will continue to sputter unless set up with excellent field position by the Irish defense.

Marcus Freeman and his staff are as much football fans as the rest of us. Many of their kids play on the same flag football team, one coached by Tim O’Malley of Irish Illustrated. Freeman and O’Malley have bantered a few times this season about O’Malley’s coaching, all very much in good fun as it is a second-grade team. It apparently won Sunday’s championship game, but that did not leave Freeman without a few gripes about the coaching.

One can wonder how quickly Freeman hatched that comic bit after seeing his son’s touchdown run waved off due to a flag infraction, how quickly a father’s frustration gave way to the coach’s opportunity. One can wonder that because the coach’s mind struggles to turn off.

Freeman struggled to watch games over the weekend, certainly not Pittsburgh’s lost chance at Wake Forest or even Clemson’s loss to Miami.

“I don’t want to watch a team we’re going to play, because then you feel like you’re working,” he said. “... I do enjoy the chance to sit down with my kids and watch football like a normal father and be able to look at other coaches and teams stress.”

On the couch, Freeman was able to find some of the fan viewing experience, watching less for scheme and more for fun.

“You kind of watch the ball,” he said. “When you’re a fan, you watch the ball. When you’re game planning, you watch specifics. Offense, defense, what are you trying to do? When I’m with my kids, I just try to watch the ball and watch the game.”

When pondering which players have already played in four games this season, meaning one more appearance will use a year of eligibility, only two names stand out: freshman linebacker Jaiden Ausberry and Colzie. Any others in that situation have preserved a season previously, so there is nothing to be gained by managing their Saturdays now.

“We’re now going onto week nine, so guys who want to redshirt, that chance is probably over in terms of playing more than four games,” Freeman said. “We have to have those conversations every week. It’s so important that our kids understand exactly what we’re thinking.”

But, logically speaking, Colzie coming back for a game or two in November would not be worth costing him an entire season down the line.

In a few weeks, there may be a wonder about Faison, having played in two games to this point.

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