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Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl Notebook: Irish defensive players update the media

The Irish defenders are up next in the media spotlight

NCAA Football: Purdue at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are out in Arizona preparing to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys on Saturday. On Wednesday, the Irish sent out some defensive players to speak with the media. Nose tackle Kurt Hinish, linebacker Drew White, defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive back Houston Griffith, and defensive end Isaiah Foskey took questions via Zoom.

Here are video from all the interviews, and a full transcript follows.

Q. Myron, can you just reflect back on the season and just talk about your thoughts going into the Fiesta Bowl.

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA: Yeah, first and foremost, I’m just blessed to be in this position. The season, it is a fun season.

Starting off at the beginning of the year having a new defensive coordinator, it was exciting to learn a whole new defense. It’s just been really exciting this entire season, the journey that it’s been, things that took place throughout this year.

There’s some loss in the season, but all I can say is I’m just grateful and blessed to be here. We’re excited for the Fiesta Bowl, yeah, just excited to be here.

Q. Myron, without diving into state secrets here, but with Coach [Mike] Elston taking over as the playcaller, has his emphasis been trying to keep it similar and just continue to do what Coach [Marcus] Freeman did? One, not throw a bunch of new stuff on you guys and, two, considering the in-season improvement you guys have made under what Coach Freeman was trying to do and his vision.

MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA: Yes, I think the emphasis was to keep it simple. The way this defense works, the way we like to run with this defense is just keep it simple and let’s play fast, free, and physical.

Before we go out on every drive, we always huddle up and we tell each other, hey, like, we set the tone and we have the perfect play calls to go out there and make plays. when Coach Elston took over, there wasn’t any fall-off because he understood that. The guys in here just want to play. Just put the ball down anywhere and just put us in the perfect position to make the best plays.

And that’s pretty much what it’s always been. And Coach Elston has done a great job in putting us in great positions to be successful.

Q. Myron, this is sort of building off that, but we were talking to Marcus [Freeman] the other day and he sort of went through the season about how it started and the defense wasn’t exactly lining up with how he thought it would be. And then he got to a point in the year where it was just like, you know what, we’re doing too much. Let’s do less but do it better.

Could you kind of detail what that point in the season was like and why the defense sort of clicked at that point and why things improved at a point where, okay, let’s do less?

MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA: Yeah, I think going into the Wisconsin game, that really set the tone for our defense. The biggest thing was we understood that we just had to be physical. We had to play fast and play free.

The way our defense is structured is just effort, effort and attitude. The way we play is everybody has to get to the ball. And the way you are going to see us play is wherever the ball is, you are going to see 11 guys swarming. You will see 11 blue jerseys swarming and 11 gold helmets swarming.

That’s the attitude and mindset that we have. The ball is not down until the carrier is down. And so Coach Marcus Freeman has always emphasized “Through it, not to it.” That’s pretty much been our mindset this whole year, is just flying around and getting to the ball.

Q. As someone who played defensive tackle before, I’m curious, how have you seen Jayson Ademilola develop in that role this season?

MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA: It’s been exciting to see Jayson have the success that he’s having. First of all, it just starts in practice. The way he works, he doesn’t take any plays off. He’s just a hard worker. He never complains.

In practice, it’s actually funny, whenever we go on scouts and he feels he doesn’t get the look he needs, he will be yelling and he will get frustrated but we got to calm him down.

He’s just the type of person that always wants to put forward his best foot. That’s what you guys have been seeing this whole year, how productive he’s been, the amount of explosive plays that he’s made. He’s just been a force this year, and I’m excited for his future endeavors.

Q. As a caption for the Irish, what do you feel is your biggest personal goal for this bowl game and what exactly does it mean to you?

MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA: I think the biggest goal for us is sending our seniors home the right way. There’s a lot of guys in here that have helped build this program to put it in the place where it is right now. Guys like Kurt [Hinish], Drew [Pyne], Josh Lugg, all those guys, Avery Davis.

Been here with these guys, been here at this place with these guys for five years. It would be great to just send these guys home with a W.

Q. Firstly, when I was watching Monday Night Football, I was thinking about you because it was your former teammate, Ian Book, versus your cousin Tua [Tagovailoan]. And I said, This must be tough for Myron to choose who to root for.

Secondly, you have been part of two Notre Dame teams that made runs to the college football playoffs. Coming into this season, not many people expected Notre Dame to do really good. They said it was a rebuilding year. What do you think has made this team so successful and outlive all of those expectations?

MYRON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA: I think the culture is what really puts Notre Dame on top. You come in here and you just have got to leave your own principles at the door. What you have got to understand is Notre Dame has tradition and culture that’s built, that you have to take in and understand.

And that’s what makes Notre Dame successful, is there’s a culture here built upon trust, upon love, and above all, about the brotherhood. You will hear us talk about the brotherhood day in and day out because that’s truly what it’s about. It’s about playing the sport that we love for your brothers, and it’s all about the team. That’s really what it is.

Q. What is the defensive mindset heading into this game, and is it any different than any other game beforehand?

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN KURT HINISH: No. We talked about it earlier in the week. Myron [Tagovailoa-Amosa] has talked about going through it, not to it. We want to finish strong and finish as champions.

Q. You were an instrumental part in the hiring of Marcus Freeman. You helped promote him to the higher-ups over there at Notre Dame. So what did you do to help get Marcus Freeman that spot as the head coach?

KURT HINISH: When they called the captain’s meeting, I put in my input. I gave them my opinion on what I thought would be the best solution going forward as a team and for the university. And the other captains spoke as well. And at the end of the day, it was all seven captains, not just myself, that had an influence on him getting that coaching job.

Q. A similar question I asked Myron [Tagovailoa-Amosa] about the defense doing less during the season, as Coach [Marcus] Freeman detailed to us the other week. When that sort of clicked in that, okay, less was sort of more and why you were able to sort of take that “through it, not to it” mentality and kind of turn up the level on that into October, maybe late September.

KURT HINISH: At the beginning of the season, we saw us playing fast and free but making mistakes in the process of that.

So when you play fast, that comes with mistakes. And so when we were able to find the blend of playing fast and free and playing assignment football is when we were really starting to take our game to the next level.

And the Wisconsin game was one of the biggest examples of that. And then, from there on, I felt we played really well. The first couple of games, we started off rocky. But other than that, we’ve been doing really well.

Q. Can you give us a glimpse into the future? Has there been any difference in game-prep routine? And how important is a win in the Fiesta Bowl for the future of this program?

KURT HINISH: I read a statistic earlier this week that Notre Dame hasn’t won a New Year’s Day Six game in I don’t know how long.

But, I mean, the goal for us, it’s been preaching in all this bowl prep is finish as champions. That’s what we want to do. We want to send the seniors out in the right way, they guys who laid the foundation for this program and where it’s at right now, and finish as champions.

Q. As an experience, I just wanted to ask you about Jason Onye and Gabe Rubio and how they’ve developed over the course of this fall.

KURT HINISH: They’re developed a lot. I’ve seen them come in as baby freshmen. And Gabe came in in the spring, and then Onye came in in the summer.

When they both got here, they weren’t ready to play meaningful football for us. I mean, I’m really confident, if they stepped on the field for us now, they would both be able to play really well for us.

Q. Is there any extra meaning to your guys’ defensive linemen to see Coach [Mike] Elston get an expanded role as a playcaller for this game and seeing how he has sort of embraced that?

KURT HINISH: It’s been cool to see him step into that role and take on that responsibility as a playcaller. I have full confidence in him to do that, and so does everybody else on the team. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s going to do great.

Q. This is another younger guy question for you. What has Rylie Mills added to the defensive line and in particular the interior line? And how have you seen him kind of grow as he’s added some of the defensive end in a three-down front to his plate this year?

KURT HINISH: I mean, the kid is a freak. If you look at him walking down the hallway, you’d be extremely intimidated, his physical attributes and just his mentality of practicing every day. He’s a hard worker. There’s no surprise to see that he’s seeing success this season. He works extremely hard every single day. And when you’re a physical freak and you work extremely hard, great things are destined to happen.

Q. I was sort of interested in terms of how you’ve seen Coach [Marcus] Freeman change or not change since he became the head coach, because obviously he’s got to change some things. There’s only so many hours in the day. So how has he sort of balanced trying to be the same guy but also he’s in a new job?

KURT HINISH: So he’s changed. And I tell him he’s changed all the time. I keep him held accountable, and I let him know how he’s changed.

For example, the defense rides on bus two and the defensive coordinator rides on bus two. And the first day we got down here, he was not on bus two. And so I FaceTimed him to let him know he was on bus one and let him know that he’s changed.

During the bowl prep, there was some questionable calls about the ball being spotted past the first-down marker. We were going ones versus ones, offense versus defense. So I told him he’s changed there.

And there were multiple instances of me getting to the quarterback and him not blowing the play dead. The old Coach Freeman would have blown the play dead.

But he’s changed. I tell him that all the time. Get on him about that. No, I’m kidding. He’s great, man. He’s doing a great job. I’m just busting his chops.

Q. I just was wondering, did you participate in the community event today with the kids? And how did that go? And just tell us a little bit about it.

KURT HINISH: I did not participate in that. I was not there. Thanks for making me look bad. (Laughter)

Q. Isaiah, I asked Myron [Tagovailoa-Amosa] and Kurt [Hinish] about how the defense improved mid-season and really hit its stride late. Marcus talked about doing less. How have you seen that shown on the defensive line, the pressures you bring? Certainly, I think being exotic and doing a bunch of different things is the strength of how [Marcus] Freeman likes to call defense. It seems like he realized doing less was maybe the way to go with your group.

DEFENSIVE LINEMAN ISAIAH FOSKEY: Yes, we just noticed towards the end of the season that doing less was just the best thing that we were good at. We just worked our craft at the simple stuff and the simple drills we were doing. We just perfected our craft, and that was the best thing that was working.

We have been working all the way throughout rest of the season this last game to show it off, but this has been working throughout the whole entire season.

Q. Isaiah, following up, what does it mean when you talk about doing less? I mean, is that scheme? What does it mean to be more reactive? And kind of philosophically, how did that play out for you guys defensively?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: What I mean by doing less is just less of more exotic stuff we were doing on third down and first down type of stunts.

And with my game, I started doing a little bit less, just focusing on my craft and what I can perfect. That’s what I mean by doing less. Like, less stunts, and me personally doing less exotic moves and doing what I can do, since I know what I can do on the field.

Q. With so much extra time to prepare for this game, do you feel like you have a better read on the opposing offensive tackles than maybe you would on a weekly basis?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: Yes, I definitely do. We have probably three weeks before this game — three, four weeks before this game, a whole month. We have been watching film over and over, just watching Oklahoma State and their offensive line and their quarterback, running back, trying to perfect everything that we are doing against them. We just had a better read on what Oklahoma State is doing.

Q. Isaiah, we talk about the challenges that Oklahoma State’s offense will present. But what are the opportunities for the defense of Notre Dame going into the game?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: The opportunities for the defense, it’s great for the corners and safeties when you have a great match-up against the receivers. It’s great for the defensive line when you have a mobile quarterback going against a great running back and an offensive line.

But it’s just a great opportunity for us, for the whole entire defense. There’s playmakers all over the field, especially the quarterback, running back, receivers, and everybody.

Q. Isaiah, we have heard Marcus [Freeman] use the phrase with us a couple times: Be football players and not fitball players. I’m curious if that’s something he talks with you guys about? If so, what does that mean? Does that have anything to do with the idea about doing less? Or is it just kind of a separate saying that he likes to use?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: That pretty much goes with doing a little bit less. Rather than fitball, everyone has a gap. We do have — everyone has a gap. But with football type of players, you just find ball and get ball. That’s the type of defense we are. We put pressure on offense, and it’s not much of a fitball. That’s more conservative. This defense, we are going after them every single play.

Q. I was hoping you could describe a little bit about the energy, what it’s like going into this game this Saturday, and how does it compare to these past postseason games that you have experienced. Any differences you noticed or anything like that?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: This is a game with just new beginnings, beginning the Coach [Marcus] Freeman era. As everyone knows, our new head coach is Coach Freeman. It just brings more of a hype to this game.

This is one of Coach Freeman’s first game, New Year’s Six bowl game. It’s just a great atmosphere. We’re coming into this game to win the game.

Q. Isaiah, what is your timeline for making a decision on next year, what you want to do? And since you guys did a bunch of good-on-good in practices, I don’t know how much you matched up against Blake Fisher. Could you give an assessment of where he’s at after missing essentially 11 1/2 games?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: My decision time, I’m not really focusing on that since we’re getting closer to the bowl game. But it’s definitely going to be before January 17th. That’s the deadline. It will be well before that.

But since we are going against one-on-ones and good-on-good, with Blake Fisher, he didn’t have a dropoff at all. He’s still the big Blake Fisher that we know from the first game at Florida State and fall ball and spring ball and everything. He didn’t have any dropoff at all. He’s great at right tackle, and he’s doing well.

Q. Isaiah, you mentioned Marcus Freeman and you want to start of the Marcus Freeman era strong. However, in the past few years, Notre Dame has not won a New Year’s Six bowl game and that’s been a big narrative in the media. How excited are you to change that narrative? And has it come up in the locker room at all about how Notre Dame hasn’t won in a while?

ISAIAH FOSKEY: Nah, that didn’t come up in the locker room as we didn’t win a New Year’s Six bowl before. Like I said, this is a new beginning, a new era, the Freeman era. Everything is on us to change everything.

Q. You went from the transfer portal to a start at Notre Dame. How much of this is because of your work ethic combined with the trust of Marcus Freeman? And what impact has Marcus had on you this season? And can you just describe what he’s like off the field as well.

SAFETY HOUSTON GRIFFITH: I just think once I made that decision to start that communication with Marcus to come out of the transfer portal and just build that relationship with him, it just helped me to just become more comfortable with making the decision to return for Notre Dame.

And just being around him and playing his defense, it’s just allowed me to excel as a leader and then also just to make plays for our defense. So I feel like this — the relationship I have with Coach Freeman has been great. And I just look forward on Saturday to help him bring a win as the new head coach of Notre Dame football and just to start the new era, the Freeman era.

Q. How would you describe the way the safety group has rallied around each other after Kyle Hamilton went down? And what sort of responsibility did you feel like you had in terms of helping prepare Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson for their new roles?

HOUSTON GRIFFITH: I feel like as the safety group, even just starting in the spring, we knew how talented we were. It was always next-man mentality. So the guys just knew that they just had to come in, ask questions and just go out there and get comfortable playing the game.

You’ve seen in the last few games with Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts coming in, being guys who’s played corner and a guy who’s played wide receiver, and just being able to come in and just make plays for our defense. And they weren’t hesitant. They went out there. They just played fast.

And those are guys that we had to depend on, and we’re continuing to depend on. These are guys who have helped our defense. And we helped become a stronger unit in the safety room.

Coach [Chris] O’Leary has helped prepare us each and every week. So there’s no reason why I believe these guys have been playing so well lately. I just feel like when Kyle went down, it was always that we have to step up as a group. Kyle always looked out for us. He helped the guys prepare during the week. And he also was giving us cues on what we should see from the offensive of the teams we were playing during the year.

So I felt like, as a unit, we all just stepped up. And we just had to go out there and just execute and do our 1/11 to be successful on Saturdays.

Q. Can you give us some insight into the film room and breaking down Oklahoma State? How comprehensive is it? Do you go back one game or the whole season? What are you looking for?

HOUSTON GRIFFITH: So far I broke down the last three games. And I’ve really just been looking for tendencies from their quarterback. I noticed that when he gets outside the pocket, he can make plays with his legs. I noticed they have pretty good backs. And then they have a talented group on the perimeter in terms of the wide receiver room.

So I know it’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s a challenge that we look forward to each and every week. It’s Notre Dame, and we play Notre Dame football.

So at the end of the day, we just got to go out there and execute, play fast, play with unit strength.

And just go out there and compete each and every play and just play one-play mindset, and just know that if we can just rely on our technique and just rely on our teaching and our preparation during the week that we should go out there victorious on Saturday.

Q. I’m curious how much of Xavier Watts you would have seen or faced in, like, scout teams or spring practice or something before he moved to safety that might have given you an idea of what he might be able to do there? Was it kind of just, like, all right, you know, I haven’t really seen much of this guy. Let’s see what he can do.

HOUSTON GRIFFITH: For Xavier, I’ve always thought he was a talented athlete. Sometimes when he was playing receiver, he would make some of these wild catches, and that always caught my attention. So I knew he was going to come and play safety for us.

It was something like, all right, this is a guy that I like to see make plays and I trust. So what can I do to help him get on the field and help him make plays for our defense.

So I feel like he’s done a great job asking those questions and getting ready each and every week because he’s a guy who actually studies the film. And he wants to get better and he wants to go out there and just be successful on Saturdays. So I’m really pleased with the things that Xavier has done so far. And just look forward to see what he’s going to do in the future.

Q. Drew, I had sort of a hilarious answer of how Marcus Freeman has changed a little bit since he’s become the head coach. Since he was also your position coach, how have you seen him change over the last three weeks as he’s had to balance a whole different set of responsibilities as head coach?

DREW WHITE: I don’t know if Kurt [Hinish] touched on it, but he’s now on bus one. Q. He did.

LINEBACKER DREW WHITE: Okay, so that’s been the hot topic recently. He’s moved on, but he sent his kids back to bus two. I don’t know what that means.

No, he’s changed in ways. He’s definitely busier. He’s got a total different operation from that standpoint. Maybe less personal time with the linebackers. So selfishly, we want him and his influence as much as we did before, but we also know the influence that he can bring to the team as a whole.

So he has just spent more time with offensive players, and the rest of the defensive unit as well. As a linebacker standpoint, a little bit less time in the meeting rooms and stuff like that, but he still comes around and makes sure — he always says he’s a linebackers coach. So he makes that known.

Q. Drew, can you talk about the development of the linebacker corps throughout the season? And second question is: Obviously, your last game, just visualizing the game going into the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday?

DREW WHITE: Yeah, I mean, I think the linebacker room went through a lot of development. It happened early in the season when we had injuries kind of come through with Shayne [Simon] and Marist [Liufau] and Paul Moala, and we had a lot of young guys having to step up.

And so JD Bertrand arose this season, and I think everyone kind of saw what he was displaying on the field and his talents. And that just speaks to him as a linebacker, and just as a player as well, just developing and trying to get better every week. I think he did that.

And then you see guys like Prince Kollie, the freshman, getting a lot of practice time. Being a second string, you get asked a lot of questions in the meeting rooms. You got to make sure you are ready. He’s just showed through the mental aspect as well that he’s ready. He’s in the game plan. He knows the defense. So he’s gaining confidence as well.

So I think there’s a lot of development, and now I see Marist [Liufau] out here in bowl prep practicing. He looks as good as ever, violent and physical, and you can just tell that he’s itching to get back on the field. It’s been really cool to see the linebackers develop this season.

Then as far as this last game goes, it’s not about me. It’s about the team, and just trying to — it’s just like another game, but in the back of my mind, for sure, I have the thought that it’s the last time putting on the gold helmet. It definitely means a lot to me. I’ve had so many memories. I’m just happy for the experience in general. It’s been amazing.

Q. Drew, you spoke to Coach [Marcus] Freeman being pulled away from being as hands-on with the linebackers. I’m curious how critical has Coach [Nick] Lezynski been in preparing you for this bowl game?

DREW WHITE: Super critical. Coach Lezynski has been a shadows guy that we talked about the last couple of years in this program, and has had major influence. Has spent countless hours, one-on-one meetings, group meetings, hotel meetings, just constantly the hardest worker in the group.

He’s done it for years, and now he gets kind of an expanded role, especially in this bowl prep to meet with the linebackers and coach us up, really running the meetings. And so it’s been great, and now he’s doing special teams as well. I’m excited for him. I’m excited for the opportunity, and I can’t wait to see what comes.

Q. Drew, I was wondering if you were able to get any treatment for the knee injury suffered in November, or is it something you had to put off to play in the bowl game? And the second part of the question you touched on, Marist [Liufau] and how the linebacker group has evolved. I was wondering where Prince Kollie has improved most. I know in September, he was making a lot of progress before he had the COVID stop for two weeks.

DREW WHITE: Yeah, as far as the knee goes, I played with it four days after I initially hurt it. So now we are on — I don’t even know how many weeks. So it feels really good. No brace anymore. Feels pretty much back to normal. So I was glad I was able to get over that hurdle and play against Navy and do that for my team. I knew they needed me. So just upwards from here. It’s going great.

As far as Prince Kollie, like I said before, his mental approach, I think, has matured the most. I mean, when you come in from high school, there are a lot of things that you are balancing. You’ve never had meetings as long as they have. You are not in the weight rooms as much. Practices are longer. practices are faster. And then you have school.

Notre Dame is different because you have to go to class. You got to keep up your grades. And I think he’s experienced all of those in his first year. And I was just talking to him the other day, telling him how much he will grow from this semester. It will only get easier.

So as far as the defense, the game plan, he’s starting to figure it out. I think he knows what he’s doing as well as what the guys are doing around him, which is key for being a really impactful defensive player.

And then physically too, I mean, you can see he’s getting bigger. He’s getting stronger, just from the [Matt] Balis program. So he’s really improving a lot this first freshman year. It was good growth for him.

Q. Drew, going back to the idea about Coach [Marcus] Freeman changing as he’s gotten his new role. When you look at just the two hours or whatever it is of practice, how much has he changed in that? Or has he made an effort like it seems in the limited time we’ve seen to try to keep as much of his routine and his mannerisms and MO the same as it was before?

DREW WHITE: Yeah, so like I touched on before, there are things that have changed. He’s in the middle of the field a lot, watching both the defense and the offense. I know he really likes the competitive periods where it’s either 11 on 11 or 7 on 7, he’s trying to kind of foster a competitive mindset, which I think is just great for the program.

There’s a little less influence on the linebackers, but at the same time if we are going linebacker drills, you look over, and he’s watching the drills and he’s giving you pointers.

Just the other day, it was in scout periods, and he comes over in my ear, and he’s talking about my blitz line and doing that. So his teaching and his techniques are still there and still prevalent, and he’s teaching them. But he has a bigger role now. He has a bigger responsibility to kind of expand it.