Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Jack Coan, offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson, running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., and tight end Michael Mayer met with journalists Tuesday as the Irish prepare to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl. Players talked about the changing of the guard at the head coach spot as well as a shapeshifting Oklahoma State defense.
Coan provided a player’s perspective of the pros and cons of movement through the transfer portal and said, “To be honest, I’m not really sure [what the downsides are.] I know, for me, I felt like it was a win/win and just a better opportunity for me going forward. A lot of positives came out of it for me as far as playing on a great football team, meeting a bunch of new friends and having great teammates and a new coaching staff, gaining more knowledge about football and so on. So, for me, it was a win/win. It was a blessing. I’m sure some other people might not have as good of experiences; but for me, it was great.”
As for marking Marcus Freeman’s debut as Irish head coach with a Fiesta Bowl win, Coan said, “Yeah, it means a ton to me. I certainly definitely want to go out with a win. You’re at a place like Notre Dame, a lot of guys are used to being in the playoffs and things like that. So you might take a breath or a step back and saying you’re not in the playoff; you’re just in a bowl game. But for him to say that we’re going to do this and this is a business trip, we’re going to go out and win, it means a ton to me. It would mean everything to end my career with a win.”
On the evolution of the Irish offense in the second half of the season and where the bowl game stands as an offensive proving ground in comparison to the Cincinnati game, Coan said, “Yeah, I mean, I’d say the offense started playing more efficient. I think that started with me and getting the ball out of my hands and making quick, smart decisions right away. Obviously, in the beginning of the year, I was taking a bunch of sacks. I felt like a lot of that was on me. I could have gotten the ball out quicker and gotten us in the right protection and things like that. So I’d say that’s one area we’ve improved. And just continuing to just be smart and protect the football and create explosive plays. I’d say that’s been the biggest thing for us.”
On the formula for a Fiesta Bowl victory and the juxtaposition of two solid defenses, the Irish QB said, “...I’d say one of the keys is protecting the football, not turning it over, creating explosives down the field, and just being efficient. Getting good plays on first and second down, staying in third in manageable situations, and just being a smart football team.”
On Notre Dame’s #5 finish despite a year of rebuilding, Patterson described the Irish mindset and said the team was successful because, “We just knew that we had talent. This spring ball and summer workouts, just watching the guys work, we knew we had it in place. We just had to put everything together. When you see that stuff out there that ‘this is a rebuilding year or we’re not going to be as good,’ puts a chip on your shoulder. I think the guys really embraced that.”
As for o-line improvement in the final half of the season and where the team can show that this weekend, Patterson said, “I mean, starting with me, if you watch game one against Florida State, we were not finishing as well. Our combo blocks on the second level were not as good. If you turn to the Stanford film, you see everyone finishing their blocks, straining to finish. And Coach [Tommy] Rees talks about it’s contagious seeing that on film. We see a wide receiver finishing their block, the tight end finishing their block, and quarterbacks extending the fake — that’s contagious for an offense. So we really took that energy and had a lot of momentum for us.”
On the challenges to offensive lines that Oklahoma State brings to the table and where he needs to react this weekend, Patterson said the primary threats are, “Really just the variety of looks they provide. It’s three down, three-three, three-down joker, four-down. They do a lot. They can do all the looks. So the biggest thing is our preparation, this week especially, has to be on point. We have to be ready for all of these third-down looks and really just win those obvious situations — third and short, third and long, red zone. All of those situations we have to win so we can help secure the Fiesta Bowl.”
On how the offensive line has adapted to losing Josh Lugg to a knee injury and putting Blake Fisher in Lugg’s place, Patterson said, “Yes, Josh is a great teammate on and off the field. Really could be considered a captain this year, just the leadership he’s done. He’s an outstanding player, and we are going to miss his presence on the field. Blake will be ready. I think we saw it. You guys saw it during fall camp and Florida State. He will be good to go. And he’s dominating. The biggest thing I told Blake is, he’s got to communicate out there. It’s been a while since he’s played. But he’s been doing a great job in practice, his preparation; and he will be ready.”
On the silver lining of Kyren Williams’ absence in the Fiesta Bowl, Tyree said, “Yes, we see a great opportunity. Kyren was such a big piece in our offense. That’s where we got a lot of our energy from. Just all three of us really, Audric [Estime], Logan [Diggs] and myself, we see a really big opportunity this weekend, just making plays and just finding our role on our offense.”
Tyree went on to explain what Williams has taught him about being an elite running back and said, “Yes, I would just say there’s a wave of consistency that you have to have as an every-down back. I have learned that as I played with Kyren and just being in the room with him. He has a lot of great habits that set the standard for what we have to do in the future. And honestly, just learning from him and just being in the room with him, I’m pretty confident in myself and the other guys with me. So I felt pretty good about it.”
Tyree described just how much turf toe held him back and said, “Yeah, honestly, I don’t think I would wish turf toe on my worst enemy. It was a really tough injury for me. But just working with Rob [Hunt], working with the training staff and getting back healthy was my main goal. And that’s where I’m at right now. I feel really good.”
As for where he’s improved the most and felt the most challenged as a running back this season, Tyree said, “Yes, I would say, just throughout the time that I was out, I was, one, trying to recover and trying to get back; but, two, being a leader. I realize that it was pretty hard for Kyren out there and he was pretty much the only back out there. But once Logan came in, just really understood his role and took advantage of it, I understood that there’s so many people in that room that could do the same thing. We’re all capable of taking on the lead role. So I just had to make sure that everyone was prepared and had to make sure that the young guys were ready to go.”
Kevin Austin Jr.
On emerging as a key offensive threat, keeping the right mindset, and capitalizing on new opportunities, the Irish wide receiver said, “I mean, in my mind, it’s always to dominate my opponent, the man standing in front of me. I feel like every play is a one-on-one. So I never try to lose a one-on-one. So every time I go out on the field, I try to dominate.”
He explained Tyler Buchner’s run-heavy play transitioning into a more pass-first game in the season ahead and said, “...I feel like Tyler has a lot of opportunities to throw. When he does, he shows his throwing arm. I would say, obviously, I get that sometimes it seems like he’s very run-heavy when he goes into the game. But at the end of the day, when he throws in the game, he has confidence and he can make throws. He makes throws in practice that I’m shocked about. So I know that he can do it in the game.”
On going up against double teams, particularly in the context of Oklahoma State doubling Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar, Mayer said, “Yeah, I think going into the game, I think my mindset never changes, even if I know they are going to double-team me. I’m always still going to try to get open. I think Jack [Coan] is still kind of always trying to find me with the ball. But if they are going to double-team me, that’s one less person that’s going to be on somebody else. So if it opens some other people up, then that’s perfect. It’s all about winning at this point. One more game left to the season. If they want to double me, that’s fine. I will still try to get open, I will still try to get the ball, but it will open some other people up too.”
On the changes Freeman has started to bring to the program, Mayer said, “I think number one, it’s been the practices. The practices have been more upbeat, more up-tempo, a little bit more against our own defense. For me, I think it’s been great. It’s got me better in shape. I think the team can agree. It’s a little bit more competitive, a little bit more energy on the field, and I think that’s something that’s been great for this team, and I think it will show this weekend.”
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