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Leftovers & Links: Freeman Era begins with a leadership vacuum for Notre Dame roster

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Jack Coan (17) chats with quarterback’s Drew Pyne (10) and Tyler Buchner (12) during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The headlines for the next 167 days will not focus on new Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman solely out of laziness. Freeman taking over the Irish program at only 36 as a first-time head coach is a worthwhile story, but in this exact instance, even more of the offseason will focus on Freeman than necessarily realized.

Notre Dame simply has so few other leaders at the moment. When this spring’s practices seem to deal too much with Freeman’s first real moments leading the Irish on the field, that topic will struggle to change because hardly anyone else brings proven leadership around the program.

Seven new assistant coaches do not help that cause. Neither does returning two captains, only to have both of them sidelined this spring. (Sixth-year receiver Avery Davis is recovering from an ACL torn in November; fifth-year center Jarrett Patterson tore his pectoral a few weeks ago.)

“The two natural leaders are the two returning captains. … That’s tough because you don’t have a captain that’s on the field with them,” Freeman said Thursday after Notre Dame’s first of 15 spring practices. “It’s still something we’re trying to promote. You have to be able to point it out. ‘Hey, if you see somebody and don’t say something, you’re just letting them perform below the standard.’

“It’s that constant message, that reinforcement from everybody from top-down.”

Some leaders will obviously emerge — sixth-year offensive lineman Josh Lugg and fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer quickly come to mind, perhaps along with fifth-year safeties Houston Griffith and DJ Brown — but for the immediate future, that onus will remain with Freeman, along with most everything else.

As a result, and this is more a bookkeeping note than anything else, Freeman will refrain from naming captains this spring. He has not even decided how his program will choose them.

“There’s captains that are voted on, and there are captains that you know as a head coach are true leaders,” he said. “I don’t know if I have a perfect answer yet, but it’s going to be something I continuously think deeply about because you want those guys that are leading your team to be the right leaders.”

Though he will not be named a captain — without checking historically, no sophomore captain comes to mind in recent Irish history — rising sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner will be counted on to be one of those leaders. Of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ primary wants from Buchner this spring, communication and leadership are as high of priorities as passing accuracy.

Buchner is not surprised by that. It is expected of a quarterback.

“I think, being a quarterback, it always starts with leadership,” Buchner said Saturday. “That’s the most important thing. As a quarterback, you’re sort of placed into this role as a leader, and that’s just how the sport works. It’s about taking that role and accepting that role and doing the best I can and being the best leader I can possibly be.”

A small honor, Buchner reportedly led one of Notre Dame’s stretching lines to start Thursday’s practice. For the last decade or so, the 10-12 players at the head of those lines were usually the leaders of the team, captains and upperclassmen. That alone should be considered proof of Buchner taking a step into the leadership vacuum Freeman is currently forced to fill single-handedly.

The return of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand should help more than just the Irish offensive line. Freeman spent some of Thursday praising the effects of Hiestand’s “demeanor” on the entire offensive coaching staff. Beyond that, Hiestand can work with players other than the offensive linemen. Namely, communication between the offensive line coach and the quarterbacks will improve protection calls.

“I was in here with coach Hiestand yesterday for an hour and a half going through just simple inside-outside zone with the line,” rising junior quarterback Drew Pyne said Saturday. “He’s someone that really cares. He watched every single game lat year, had a note for every single game last year. He’s a guy we’re going to really rely on. I think the run game is going to step up this year.”

Injuries happen. This is football. It is still most frustrating for any player to not even make it a week into spring practices before suffering a season-ending injury, as rising junior defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina reportedly did over the weekend.

Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister first reported Keanaaina tore his ACL.

At the moment, Keanaaina has four years of eligibility remaining, but this season will count as one of them, since he already preserved the traditional year of eligibility by playing in only three games in 2021.

Without Keanaaina, Notre Dame should still have plenty of defensive interior depth, but obviously losing a 300-pounder is never something to overlook.

The complete list of active Irish injury concerns:
— Keanaaina with a freshly-torn ACL.— Cornerback Cam Hart and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola both recovering from winter shoulder surgeries.— Receiver Avery Davis rehabbing an ACL torn in November.— Center Jarrett Patterson out for the next two months after tearing his pectoral in offseason weight-lifting.— Tight end Cane Berrong recovering from an ACL torn last season.— Sophomore center Pat Coogan with a meniscus injury, per Freeman.— Early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman Billy Schrauth out for the spring after undergoing surgery to repair a foot injury he played through in his senior season of high school.

Only Coogan and Keanaaina were new additions to this list in the last week.

Mixed results for Notre Dame at the NFL combine, with the best showing coming from Kevin AustinWhere Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, moving forward without Kyren WilliamsWhere Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, obviously led by All-American Michael MayerWhere Notre Dame Was & Is: Wide receivers, still too few on the Irish rosterWhere Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning four starters and a familiar coachWhere Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, still talented but now with unproven depth
Notre Dame begins spring practice with familiar QB question despite new coaching staff

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