With a week to go before Notre Dame’s highly anticipated season opener at Ohio State, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees spent some time fielding questions after Saturday’s practice.
Rees was expansive with some answers and more brief with others. Let’s start with the short responses, first.
Can you run tempo with a first-time starter quarterback? The first-time starter is Tyler Buchner, whose name is half as long as Rees’s answer.
“We’ll find out Saturday,” Rees said.
What’s Notre Dame’s offensive identity with Buchner at quarterback? The answer was longer, but no more revealing.
“I guess we’ll find out in a week,” said Rees. “You know, I’m not going to tip anything off, but I guess we’ll find out in a week.”
Notre Dame’s starting left guard Jarrett Patterson has been out of action for about a week and a half with a foot sprain. He was in a t-shirt and shorts and wearing a walking boot with his uniformed teammates after Saturday’s practice.
“That’s up to Coach (Marcus) Freeman,” Rees said of Patterson’s status for Sept. 3. “I don’t answer those questions.”
How about running back?
The four available scholarship running backs Rees and the offense have available are junior Chris Tyree, sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, and freshman Gi’Bran Payne.
“We feel like we have three (or) four backs that can really help us win games right now,” Rees noted. “All have a little bit of a different identity. It’s our job to get to maximize that. Also in the course of the game, you can kind of start to feel okay, this guy’s running well today, let’s stay with him. Each has a very specific role, a very specific part of the game plan that allows us to diversify our touches a little bit. So, we feel good about those three right now.”
Estime is the one player most know the least about after he carried the ball just seven times for 60 yards as a freshman in 2021. After watching him during Notre Dame’s fall training camp, it’s easy to feel like a coming out party is imminent.
“Unveiling it’s probably a heavy word,” Rees stated. “But yeah, we feel confident in Audric’s ability. He has worked extremely hard this offseason to put himself in position to have (an) impactful year for us. But again, we have three guys that we know can play. Two of them have played more than Audric, but Audric’s done a nice job all camp.”
Diggs is Notre Dame’s second most experienced running back. He had 52 carries for 230 yards as a freshman in 2021, but he tore a labrum in his shoulder in the April Blue-Gold Game, prompting him to start camp by wearing a red “no contact” jersey that’s usually reserved for quarterbacks. Diggs took off the red and put on the blue a little more than a week ago.
“He’s done a nice job for us,” Rees said of the Louisiana native. “Logan’s talent is apparent when you watch him play. I think he’s comfortable running the ball and taking a hit. I think he looks comfortable. I think he’s hungry to get back out there. I think when you’re out for an extended period of time, twice really, when you’re not out there you certainly lose the feeling of being part of the group. I think now that he’s back and in the swing of things, he’s really eager to be playing and he wants to prove that he can play at a high level.”
Those backs will be running behind a line that is being developed by Harry Hiestand, who built some brilliant lines during his first stint in South Bend (2012-17).
Notre Dame’s offensive line will be the most improved aspect of the team this year. Take that to the bank. Getting him back was vitally important for Rees and the offense.
“It’s really cool, like at some point in camp, it clicks and you start to see, ok this is exactly what it’s going to look like with Coach Hiestand leading that group,” Rees explained. “You can see the movement, the way they come off the ball, the way they communicate, the way they operate. All of those things you start to see click and you’re like ‘This is exactly why he’s in charge of that room’.
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“We’re thrilled to have him back,” Rees continued. “He’s been a great support for me and obviously been a great leader for that room. He’s made a tremendous impact on the improvement for those guys.”
The training camp loss of captain Avery Davis to an ACL tear made the group thinner, before adding safety Xavier Watts to the mix. Sophomore Jayden Thomas and veteran Joe Wilkins Jr. have also had injuries during camp, but Rees likes the job first year receivers coach Chansi Stuckey has done.
“We’ve done a nice job all camp, I think,” Rees noted. “Coach Stuck has really improved that room and he’s done a really good job of technically getting guys better in areas that they needed to. That’s why he’s here and we’re thrilled with what Coach Stuck’s done and prepared those guys.
“I think you look at that first group and you feel good about those guys jogging out there,” he continued. “It’s good to have (Jayden Thomas) back. He had a really good camp for us. Shoot, we feel good about the guys there. We’re gonna try to put each individual in positions to do what they do best.”
Tight ends coach Gerad Parker is the other new coach on the offensive staff. Parker was the offensive coordinator at West Virginia the past two years before he was hired as Notre Dame’s tight ends coach. Rees has been able to lean on Parker in their time together.
“He’s come in and hit the ground running,” Rees said of Parker. “He’s been an unbelievable help to me, great for our room. Like the back and forth we can have, the conversations about different areas of the game plan, having a guy you can really just trust to take part of the game plan and say ‘Ok, what are your thoughts here. Let’s kick these back and forth.’ He’s been an invaluable member of what we’ve got going on right now. He’s sharp, he’s got a great demeanor about him, he’s great with our players. I trust him like I’ve worked with him for 10 years. He’s done a great job since he’s come in.
“We all have different backgrounds,” Rees continued. “We have a saying ‘When we all think alike, no one thinks very much’. So, I think as many different perspectives as you can have contribute in one group, the more ideas you have flowing in, I’ve said this a million times, I don’t act or pretend like I have all the answers. I don’t want to have all the answers. I want input and perspective and different ways to look at things so that can make our team better. There’s been some situational conversations that we’ve had that have been tremendous. There have been some route ideas, some route nuance things, some drill ideas that have really enlightened what we’re doing as an offense and without him, those things don’t come up. So, I think when you have guys from different perspectives and different paths, ultimately it contributes to a good staff.”
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