The Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue to prepare for their Fiesta Bowl matchup against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Despite issues elsewhere around the country, the Fiesta Bowl appears to be on track to play on Saturday.
Notre Dame’s best defensive back going into the Fiesta Bowl was undoubtedly CB Cam Hart. On Wednesday, South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James spotted Hart with his leg wrapped and looking anything BUT ready to play on Saturday.
#NotreDame starting CB Cam Hart did very little in today's open portion of practice. His upper right leg was heavily wrapped in tape and he was walking gingerly. Looked unlikely to play in Saturday's Fiesta Bowl.— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) December 29, 2021
Notre Dame hasn’t released anything about Hart’s status yet, but we will likely find out more on Friday when Marcus Freeman speaks with the media.
Footage from Notre Dame’s practices on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston spoke with the media on Wednesday. Here is the full transcript along with the full video from the presser.
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH MIKE ELSTON: Excited to be here, excited for this opportunity. Our guys have worked their tails off over the last few weeks to prepare for this opportunity. We’re presented with an incredible challenge with Oklahoma State’s offense.
If you’ve watched the film, it’s a tempo team that they make their living with explosive plays. They’ve got game wreckers on the perimeter at receiver and they’ve got a really, really good running back and an explosive quarterback that can change the game with his legs. They create a lot of issues for defenses.
I think our game plan is very, very good and we’re ready for the challenge.
Q. I was interested just sort of how the last month has been for you getting more involved in playcalling. There was a collaborative spirit before, but when you’re the guy who’s actually making the calls, how different has that been and how do you relish that opportunity?
COACH ELSTON: Yes. Like you said, in terms of game planning all year long, it’s been a collective effort. What you write on the game plan is from everybody that’s got their input. Obviously, Coach [Marcus] Freeman called the defense during the season and with input during game time of what I might want to see for a pass rush, a stunt, a pressure, same thing for the backend.
That won’t change as we move through this game. Obviously, I’ll be the lead making the call, but input from Coach [Mike] Mickens and Coach [Chris] O’Leary and even Coach [Marcus] Freeman.
It’s great. I love that opportunity. It’s been fun to get — I did it back in 2016 for eight games, and it’s fun to get back into that and be a part of it.
But, again, it’s collective. Everybody is going to be having input. It’s certainly not anything I can do on my own and we have an incredible staff, a very talented defensive staff, as you’ve probably seen throughout this year and it will be a collective effort.
Q. What’s been the biggest improvement on the defense this year, and what do you attribute that to?
COACH ELSTON: Oh, good question. Early on, there was a learning curve for the scheme that Coach [Marcus] Freeman had brought. I think that we were a little bit more, what you would call, on body, playing man coverage and I think we got better at that as the season went on.
We played better technique across the board from the front to the backend. We settled in. We understood what the calls were and how to execute those calls.
I think it’s been a blend of a lot of things, technique, number one, being more aggressive and getting used to that with being on body in coverage.
Then we improved on third down. We were a little more creative on third down as the season went on and especially games three, four, and on. I think you have seen that. I think our numbers have improved on third down.
From technique to understanding the scheme better, I think we got better as tacklers as the season went on. Obviously, getting off the field on third down was a huge improvement.
Q. I’m curious, once Kyle [Hamilton] went down with the injury in the USC game, how would you describe from your vantage point the way the secondary has evolved since then and the level of play of that group?
COACH ELSTON: Yeah, it’s impressive because they didn’t flinch. We put young guys in positions to have to go out there and execute and make plays, and they did that.
You’ve seen Ramon Henderson. You have seen guys, young guys, step up and fill a role that going into the season we didn’t think they’d have to fill. They haven’t flinched. I think it’s great and young guys have had opportunities, and they’ve taken advantage of it.
Q. We’ve heard Coach [Marcus] Freeman talk about how he’s been, I guess, impressed with the way you guys have gone about the game prep, in particular for this one. But has that really changed even with him as the head coach, or is it kind of the film study, the prep, all that, just as it was for any other games, and then you taking over as a playcaller is just more of a game-day thing?
COACH ELSTON: Yes, it’s been the same. Obviously, Coach Freeman has taken on many other duties and roles with being the head football coach that he has not been able to be in the defensive staff room as much as he would like. We don’t make any decisions schematically that would be earth-shattering without running them by him. Obviously, we want this defense and this game plan to reflect what it was all season, which was his vision. I would say it’s much of the same but minus Coach Freeman at times. Obviously, he’s got other duties.
But we haven’t changed what we do. We game plan certain things at a certain time and we’re pretty similar to what — consistent to what we’ve done all season. So we just run things by him.
Q. When looking at Oklahoma State’s offense through game film, what stood out to you about running back Jaylen Warren and how different does that offense — did that offense look when he wasn’t able to go against Baylor in the Big 12 title game?
COACH ELSTON: Yeah, I mean, he’s a powerful running back. He’s got great vision, makes decisive cuts. He’s bulky. He runs behind his pads. He’s physical. He’s got really good hands. They can get the ball to him in the backfield on screens and he makes big plays with the ball in his hands.
It looked a lot different. They’re quicker, more explosive and he’s a very impressive running back. You have to bring your feet to tackle him. You have to club and wrap, and you have to get helmets to the football with him running the ball and they go tempo, they spread you out. The quarterback can pull the ball at any time and run it. There’s a lot of complexities to it but when he’s in the game, it’s different. He’s a really good running back.
Q. So when Marcus Freeman was introduced as head coach, the team went crazy in the locker room and the clip went viral. Can you describe what that moment was like for you as a coach watching on?
COACH ELSTON: I was actually somewhere recruiting. I wasn’t even in the locker room.
But seeing the video, it doesn’t shock me. He’s the same guy every day. The players appreciate that. It was very heart-warming. And he’s a great guy, and the players love him, and it showed up on that video.
Q. I have two player questions for you. What is it that you and Coach [Marcus] Freeman like about Jordan Botelho at the second level. You really used him there against Wisconsin in some game-plan-specific things, and it seems like he might be there this week.
And then also the versatility that Justin Ademilola showed this year. At some point, he was a strong side end and now he really seems to be playing all over the field in different packages.
COACH ELSTON: To start with Jordan, we are trying to find ways to get Jordan on the field. He’s an explosive athlete. He does really good on special teams. And I think that he would have filled a role that Justin is playing right now.
And Justin — as you’ve asked the second part of the question, Justin has really come on and been very reliable. And he can fill a lot of roles.
So they’re very similar players. And with Justin really taking more of a lead role at the defensive line and moving him around on third down, it has allowed us to move Jordan to linebacker and play at that second level, which he played in high school. He’s instinctive. He’s physical. He’s good in coverage. And when you activate him on pass rush, he’s dynamic. So we’re trying to find ways to get Jordan on the field.
And when you have an upper classman like Justin that’s very reliable, that can do the same jobs, and we can move them around. They can learn two or three different positions.
So there’s a lot of versatility there. And we got a lot of guys on the sideline that we still can’t get on the field. So Jordan’s feeling a little bit of that. And moving forward, we’re going to have to try to find a way to get him on the field and put him in a position like we have Justin to make some plays for us.
Q. A number of the players have talked about the different presser packages, whether it be stunts or blitzes, that have allowed you guys to have success rushing the passer. I’m curious, what has been the key to making sure that those have worked as effectively as they have?
COACH ELSTON: Well, it’s knowing your personnel, number one, knowing how you can utilize them. And then, secondly, it’s really kind of dictating by how you’re aligning what the offense can do or cannot do.
You have an idea of what the protections might be. You narrow it down and by lining up in certain fronts and different alignments, you can pretty much dictate what you’re going to get and then, from there, game plan it.
Our guys have a really good understanding of when we jump into a certain front, what protection they are going to get and how we’ll attack it and that’s from the D-line and the linebackers.
We got smart kids and they do a great job with the stunts and pressures. When you have really good pass rushers, you don’t have to be overly creative, just get ‘em in certain positions and utilize their talents the right way.