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Fiesta Bowl Notebook: Status of Notre Dame’s Cam Hart, COVID, and Oklahoma State

Joint press conference ENGAGE

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On Friday Marcus Freeman and Mike Gundy sat together for the final press conference before the Fiesta Bowl between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

The two most important things that we learned from this presser are:

  • Cam Hart should be 100% for the game and ready to go.
  • There are no Notre Dame players that will be out for COVID.


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SCOTT LEIGHTMAN: Once again, welcome here to Friday, New Year’s Eve, for the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl featuring No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 5 Notre Dame.

OKLAHOMA STATE HEAD COACH MIKE GUNDY: Well, we’re very excited and thrilled to be in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. Congratulations to Coach [Marcus] Freeman and Notre Dame. They’ve had a terrific season. We’ve had a great week, as always, being in the Scottsdale area. We have great weather, great accommodations. The (Fiesta Bowl Committee) Yellow Coats have been fantastic, the people in the community. Our players, our fans, families have had a great week.

As to be expected, we’re very excited about playing in the game. What a great matchup, two teams that have worked hard to get to this point. So been going at it since the first of August, and going to get a chance to play one more game tomorrow. And very excited. Looking forward to the game.

NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH MARCUS FREEMAN: Well, as Coach [Mike] Gundy said, this is an extremely unique opportunity for this team, for myself included. We are excited to play a really, really good Oklahoma State team, and to be at such a prestigious Fiesta Bowl. Our whole community, our program, the staff, the people that are down here are so excited to be here in Tempe, in Phoenix and Scottsdale, and all over here in Arizona.

So we’re looking forward to tomorrow. It’s been a whirlwind over the past few weeks of just changes and bowl practice and Christmas and getting down here. And our kids are ready to go, so we’re excited for the opportunity.

Q. Marcus [Freeman], first, just an update on Cam Hart. We saw him at practice hobble a little bit. And then a bigger-picture question in terms of — we’ve talked a lot about what’s new and what’s challenging as a first-time head coach, but I was interested a few weeks into this if there are things where you have already sort of hit, like, “This feels natural, this feels comfortable to me, even if I’ve never done it before.”

COACH FREEMAN: Yeah, Cam Hart will be ready to go. He got a thigh bruise, I think it was, Monday in practice when we got down here. A knee hit him in the thigh and he was out for a day.

He was practicing yesterday, and he’ll be ready to go. We look forward for him being 100% on Saturday.

As far as being a first-time head coach, you attack each task being the person you are; being the person that got you to this position. And there’s something new every day. Tomorrow will be my first time being a head coach. It’s going to be something new, but you just attack it one thing at a time, one day at a time, and figure this thing out.

Q. Marcus [Freeman], if I’m not mistaken, you played against Notre Dame once as a player, maybe, and twice as an assistant at Purdue. What is it like playing against that gold helmet?

When you went against Notre Dame, is that how you felt, “Hey, this is a big opportunity; this is something special?”

COACH FREEMAN: Yeah, I think the history and tradition of Notre Dame speaks for itself. We all know Notre Dame is unique. I didn’t know what made Notre Dame unique until I actually got here, and it’s the people.

It’s the people that have gone through this campus; that have gone through this university for four years that expanded throughout this country and this world. That’s what makes Notre Dame special.

The football tradition speaks for itself. But Notre Dame is a special place built by special people. That’s what makes this place special. I didn’t know that until I got here, but I quickly learned. This place is very unique and it’s because of the people.

Q. Hey, Mike [Gundy], we talked to you all week about your plans with the defensive playcaller. Have you made a call there? If so, what went into that decision?

COACH GUNDY: Well, we’ll have a couple guys calling plays for us. We’ll do it on first and 10 and then third downs, passing situations. After watching it for the last three weeks, we’ve had a number of guys in the room that I was comfortable with. So we’re going to use a couple of guys at different times in the games based on the situations.

You have Dan Hammerschmidt, you have Tim Duffie, and you have Joe Bob Clements. Those guys will be able to mix up the play calling based on the situation.

Q. Coach [Mike] Gundy, I know you’ve been asked before, with a bowl game record of 10-5, it seems like you must have a pretty good formula for preparation. I’m wondering if maybe you could speak to what it is, the big picture that you’ve done, to prepare teams for bowl games and what your team’s prep has been like over this last month?

COACH GUNDY: Well, I’m a firm believer that players win games. Coaches can lay out a blueprint and give them an opportunity, but players have to be able to go out and compete and play and win games. Particularly in bowls, just my experience doing it for a number of years, some teams are excited to play in bowl games and maybe some teams aren’t.

We’ve been very fortunate that we have a great culture at Oklahoma State. We have young men that really like to play football. I think that’s an advantage, particularly in today’s society, that these guys really enjoy playing football.

And our bowl preparation has been great. Once we finish the regular season and we give them a week off, and then we start bowl preparation, we go at it pretty good. And then they make a decision as a team how hard they want to practice, what they want to put into it, what their commitment level is.

And we’ve been very fortunate over a number of years to have really quality young men that look forward to playing in bowl games. We feel like that we owe a lot to the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. We feel like we owe a lot to our fans. People that support us throughout the year. And when you play a great Notre Dame team, we feel like we’re obligated to give them our best game.

Q. This question is for Coach [Marcus] Freeman. Obviously, we know it’s your first game. I’m curious, as you get to within 24 hours of kickoff here, are you starting to experience any excitement or nervous energy? Anything that you’re not used to? And secondly, I’m curious if you thought about what you’ll tell your team right before you send them out on the field tomorrow.

COACH FREEMAN: Yeah, right now I’m focused on making sure we have a good walk-through today and we finish our final preparations as we go into tomorrow. Yeah, I’m usually nervous before every game, because you can’t go out there and do it anymore. So you live through these young people. And I’m most excited for them to be able to go out there and compete and play against a really good Oklahoma State team.

So we’ll get to tomorrow when it presents itself. I’ll figure out what I’ll say to this group of guys here tomorrow. But there’s really nothing else needs to be said. We practiced. We’re prepared. Now they want to go play.

Q. I know you’ve got a game left, but how well did your offense play this season?

COACH GUNDY: We played good at times. There were games that we didn’t play as well, and it was

based on turnovers.

It’s not a complicated game, right? Move forward. Don’t take negative-loss plays. Take care of the football, don’t turn it over. Be good in special teams. Defense, don’t give up big plays. So it’s not a complicated game — for us, anyway. At times when we didn’t play as well offensively is when we turned the football other.

Q. This is for Coach [Marcus] Freeman. How have you been able to navigate the increased COVID protocols? How did your team come through that? Second, more bigger picture, you wanted so much to make this for your seniors, this game, but how much were you able to toggle with everything else on your plate, like assistant coaching searches, portal perusal, and recruiting and things like that?

COACH FREEMAN: With the COVID question, we have everybody available for the game. So what we did is we made sure they understood how important it is to make good decisions as you left campus and as you come down to Arizona. We have to make smart decisions. We have to know where we’re at and understand that, hey, whatever it’s going to take to make sure we have everybody healthy and available to play this game, then let’s do it. So they’ve done an excellent job, and everybody will be available for Saturday.

As far as just focusing on the seniors and finishing the season the right way, everything else comes second. The staff, the future staff comes second. The transfer portal comes second. Right now it’s about preparing this group to finish as champions. And that’s our mindset, and that’s everything that we do, is let’s finish this season off the right way. And we’ll handle those other situations after the bowl game.

Q. My question is for Coach [Marcus] Freeman. This last week, actually the entire bowl prep time, Mike Gundy has spent a lot more time on the defensive side of the ball with the absence of Jim Knowles. As a head coach, how quickly have you acclimated to watching the offense and being involved in what you want them to get accomplished?

COACH FREEMAN: I mean, right now, my role has been pretty much what it’s been all year, in terms of being very involved with the defense. And the only time I’m not involved on the defense is when we do good-on-good. Then I get a chance to run around there and be the ref. So that’s my fun time, a chance to go out and run around and spot the ball and blow the whistle.

When we go scout teams, I’m with the defense; very involved with the defense. Our offensive staff had done a great job all year. I trust what we’re doing on the offensive side of the ball. And that’s what we’re going to do as we move into tomorrow.

Q. Question for Coach [Marcus] Freeman. Without Kyren Williams, who’s been the emotional leader of this offense for the last couple of years, who fills that void? And then in order to play complementary defense with your offense and defense, what’s your message to Tommy Rees going into this?

COACH FREEMAN: How do you replace Kyren Williams? You don’t. You don’t replace Kyren Williams with one person. You try to replace his production with a group of guys. You’re going to see all three of them, between [Logan] Diggs and between Chris [Tyree] and between Audric [Estime] and those guys. Everybody has got to help fill the production that Kyren Williams had.

The emotional leadership that he brought to this team will have to be picked up by other guys, other leaders that we have amongst this team that I’m confident will do a great job of being the emotional leaders for tomorrow.

So as far as complementary football, again, we all understand that we’re going to need all three phases tomorrow to be successful. And we’re going to have to do a really, really good job on all three phases to have a chance to be successful in this game. So every phase, offense, defense, special teams understands that you’re going to have to do your part making sure that we have success.

We have to take care of the football. We have to try to take the football away. We have got to take care of the ball on special teams. You see the punter for Oklahoma State (Tom Hutton) somehow finds a way to have so many returns as muffed punts. It’s something I just watch over and over. If we can’t take care of the football, then it’s going to be a long game.

Everybody has to understand let’s take care of the football on offense, try to take the football away on defense. And we have to hand the ball to the official on special teams.

Q. Who will be handling punt returns?

COACH FREEMAN: Right now it will be Matt Salerno.

Q. Mike [Gundy], you’ve done a great job of not making us feel like idiots over the years when it comes to football. But the truth is, we don’t know much about what’s going on. When you talk about two or three guys calling the defense, how does that work communication-wise? Like, deciding whether it’s third and long or third and medium, that’s a decision that seems has to be made in a split second, and then the play call. How does that whole communication work with multiple guys calling the next play?

COACH GUNDY: So you have first and 10, second and 10-base plays in a game. And then you have third and five plus would be more of a passing situation traditional.

And the defensive coaches have done what everybody else in the country does. They have breakdowns and numbers based on that. And that gives them an opportunity to make play calls based on the situation that we think we’re in defensively, compared to what Notre Dame has done offensively.

They’re playing with two quarterbacks. Guys are a little different style-wise, but both have been successful. Depending on the situation, certain guys make plays. Particularly third and five plus would be different than first and second down in normal.

Q. Question for Marcus Freeman. Marcus, what are these last 24 hours going to be like for you as far as your to-do list as a head coach compared to when you were the defensive coordinator?

COACH FREEMAN: It will still be very similar. Again, after this, we have the walk-through. Then we have to go to the stadium and come back. The players will have a little time off before we have dinner tonight. My mindset will still be similar, just my last-minute preparations.

And then as we go into tomorrow, we have got to wake up and play. And so we don’t have a lot of time to think about what you’re going to do tomorrow morning. We have got to get up early and be ready to go from the minute we get down to the lobby.

That’s my whole thought process, of, hey, what can I do to make sure our guys wake up and are ready to go in the morning? And at the end of the day, you have got to trust your preparation. You have got to trust we prepared the right way. Then they have to go out there and execute.

You see it over and over. Everybody has a plan for success, and they’re not that much different. But it’s the ability to go out there only game day and execute that you see the teams that are executing are the ones that are winning these bowl games.

Q. Mike [Gundy], back to the train of thought about the defensive playcalling. When Jim [Knowles] left, was your initial assumption that you would leave that to one guy? And then you discovered as you went through bowl prep that this was the best way to go about it? Or did you have the shared responsibilities in mind all along and you found out you could make that work?

COACH GUNDY: Well, I felt comfortable with the coaches in our defensive room. As you know, you followed us for a long time. Most of the guys on my staff have been with me a number of years. So for that reason, they have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Obviously, we rely on our coordinators, just like everybody else in the country.

But in most cases, you’re going to have coaches in each room that are capable of calling offense, defense, could be special teams, based on being in there for a number of years.

So once Jim decided to leave, then I had to go to work and watch and see and get a feel in meetings and different things, practice, to get an idea of where we were at as a staff. And I became comfortable with several guys being able to help calling the game.

Q. Marcus [Freeman], going off the running backs, how have you noticed Chris Tyree in recent weeks, now that he at least told us the other day he’s fully recovered, it seems, from turf toe. That was not a fun injury for him. What have you noticed about how much — or how close, I guess, he looks to pre-injury form and how he’s looking at tomorrow’s opportunity?

COACH FREEMAN: The reality is I haven’t seen Chris Tyree practice much before this last month before I became head coach. I didn’t pay much attention to it. But I saw the highlights from last year and obviously the explosive plays he made.

Even in terms of our offense this season, as a defensive coordinator, you don’t have much time to watch the offensive side of the ball, but he’s done an unbelievable job of bowl prep.

He has reiterated to me that he feels healthy, finally feels 100%. He’s done of a heck of a job in practice. All I can do is make my observations off what I’ve seen these past four weeks of bowl prep. I really can’t compare to what I’ve seen during the season, because I didn’t pay much attention to what our offense was doing in terms of scout team and stuff like that.

So he’s done an excellent job for us, and I expect him to play well tomorrow.

Q. Coach [Mike] Gundy, going back to the defensive playcalling, with choosing to divide those responsibilities among three guys, besides their abilities to coach different positions, what is it that kind of makes each of the three of them unique going into this situation?

COACH GUNDY: Just my feeling that some guys have a better feel for what goes on up front. Some guys have a better feel for what goes on in the back-end. But the three of them have a good feel for the entire defense. So to localize their specialty gives us the best chance, in my opinion, in this football game, and not put it all on one guy’s shoulders.

So they can study and come up with a plan based on what they see and what they feel going into this game gives us the best opportunity, in my opinion.

Q. You had said you were going to have that meeting with them. Did you sit down with the staff and have that conversation with them on Thursday and how did that go?

COACH GUNDY: Well, I didn’t necessarily sit down with everybody. I just had communication with them throughout the week on what my plans were. And they were comfortable and fine with the situation and looking forward to being able to call plays in the game.

That’s the fun part of it. Some guys don’t ever get a chance to be a coordinator. They don’t ever get to sit down on play station and call plays. Now that they’re coordinators, they get a chance to call some plays in the game, so that’s a pretty cool situation.

Q. Hey, Marcus [Freeman], a lot has gone on with this Notre Dame team throughout the season, lots of ups with lots of downs as well. What has this season taught you about yourself as a person?

COACH FREEMAN: Well, it was a great, actually humbling experience for me to start the season. You come from Cincinnati where we had a lot of success, and you feel like you really had a good spring. You really had a good fall. As you go into the first game versus Florida State, after that game, you’re like, “Oh, crap, we’re not as good as I thought.”

In terms of defensively, we didn’t play as well. Toledo, we didn’t play as well. It really made me lean on our staff and say, What changes do we need to make? What small changes do we need to make to make sure this scheme fits the players that we have?

What you’ve seen over the course of the year is just trying to make small, strategic changes to our scheme to make sure it fits the players we have. Then all of a sudden, after week 6, your best player, Kyle Hamilton, goes down. So you have to say, Okay, now how do we fit this scheme around who’s the next guy in?

This group has just trusted us and this coaching staff. The coaching staff has done a tremendous job in terms of just figuring out what’s the best way to teach these guys. What’s the best thing that fits these guys? We’ve worked as a team. The defensive staff has been a team all year.

Taking other people’s ideas is something that we’ve done. And just the ability to try and get to this final product that we have, it’s been a growing experience.

But I think as of the Stanford game, we were playing our best ball. And so I hope that momentum can continue to keep going in the same direction as we get ready to go out there tomorrow.

Q. I’m wondering as you’ve watched all this video, what’s one aspect of your opponent that you really admire, that you sit there and say, Boy, I wish we had that in our program?

COACH FREEMAN: My challenge to our group is we have to match the intensity and the physicality this group (Oklahoma State) plays with. And that’s something I always prided myself on as a defensive coordinator. We’re going to be tough, we’re going to be physical, and we’re going to play hard.

Then you turn on the film and you watch this offense and their defense especially play extremely hard and extremely physical, and it’s a challenge. The ability to match that intensity and physicality and how hard we play will be a huge challenge. But I think our group is up to it. And that’s what we’re going to have to do if we want to have success tomorrow.

COACH GUNDY: Well, the answers are similar. Teams that have had this much success and get to bowls like the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl is you have to compete against teams that play really hard. And so Notre Dame plays hard. The guys look like they like to play football. They run to the football. They compete. They fight for extra yards. Their quarterbacks aren’t scared to make plays with their legs at times.

And again, I go back to, it’s not really a complicated game. And teams that have players that are willing to compete, run to the football, fight for extra yards, care about the guy next to them. And that’s what you have to do when you play in games like this. And that’s what I see from Notre Dame.

Q. Hey, Mike, Coach [Marcus] Freeman talked about how no COVID issues with their team. First, I wanted to ask if you guys were all clear with that as well? And then along the line of health, how has Jaylen Warren looked this week coming off of that ankle injury that kept him out of the Big 12 title game?

COACH GUNDY: We’re doing really good with COVID. We had a few cases before we left. Since we’ve gotten here, we’ve only had one case. We’re in great shape. Our guys have done a good job.

And Jaylen Warren has practiced and is doing fine. I feel like that he’s healthy for the first time in, gosh, since the TCU (Texas Christian University) game, really. He’s back and feels pretty good, and excited about him being able to play.

As coaches, we always want our players that put forth the effort over a year to compete and finish the season full speed; to give him a chance to go out there and play and have some fun. And he’s doing really well this week.

Q. On COVID, how many guys are you going to be without tomorrow? And then in terms of health, where is Blaine Green at heading into tomorrow, and what’s he dealing with?

COACH GUNDY: We’re in good shape with COVID. We’ve been very fortunate. As I said, our medical staff has been good. Our players have committed themselves to staying healthy. So we’re in great shape.

Blaine won’t play in the game tomorrow. We just don’t feel like that he’s in a position to play. So we’ll set him and let him get some offseason work, get him ready to go for spring ball.

Q. Mike [Gundy], I guess your old coach, Pat Jones, has said that this game will be as big as anybody who’s ever put on an Oklahoma State uniform has played in. I’m wondering if you

would go that far in terms of the importance of this game. And just what do you think is at stake, I suppose, for your program in terms of national reputation?

COACH GUNDY: Well, we have all the respect in the world for Notre Dame. It’s the first time we’ve come across them. I said this in the press conference the day that the game was announced. My mom is from Flint, Michigan. She was born and raised up there. She was born and went to Catholic school. So I had a little bit of “Go Blue” and the Notre Dame fight song pushed on me as a young kid growing up in Oklahoma.

So I’m very aware of it. We’re extremely excited. I mentioned a few weeks ago that myself and our athletic director then, Coach [Mike] Holder, we tried to schedule a home-and-home with Notre Dame and found out they were scheduled way, way, way in advance, so it wasn’t possible.

But one thing that is important to us in our culture is, it doesn’t make a difference who we play. It doesn’t make a difference where we play. We have a responsibility. So we get the same question a lot in preseason. Sometimes we might play somebody of an opponent that people think might not be up to playing Oklahoma State. And how do you get your team ready? It’s the same process. We have a responsibility to prepare, to practice, to work hard, to get ready to play. It doesn’t make a difference who it is.

And so is this a great opportunity and a big game for everybody on the field and all of our players and everybody from Oklahoma State? Sure it is. And we prepare the same way each week. I hope that we do. That’s my responsibility to make sure our players understand that side of it.

Q. Coach [Charlie] Dickey is a Scottsdale native, grew up here, went to Saguaro High School, gets to practice at his high school field. His family has had season tickets for the Fiesta Bowl for all 51 years of the game. He used to sneak on the field in the early days to get autographs and gloves from the players. What has it meant for Coach Dickey to come back here and coach in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl this year and his impact on the team?

COACH GUNDY: It’s been a really neat situation. I gave him a hard time earlier in the week because we knew that this was his home and he played here, very tradition-rich high school.

We were leaving to go to practice the other day, and my youngest son, my 17-year-old, was going to drive over and meet us over there so he could work out in the weight room. And we were walking out to get ready to get on the bus.

And I said, hey, Coach Dickey, I said, do you know how to spell the high school that we’re practicing at today? And he said, well, you know that’s my school, right? I said, no, I didn’t know that was your school. I just need to know if you know how to spell it so he can put it in his GPS so he can get over there.

I was giving him a hard time about it. And he spit it out real fast on how to spell it. He said, “Coach, that’s my high school.” So anyway, I kind of let him get on the bus and didn’t say anything about it ‘til later.

But it’s been really neat. We’ve got several connections out here. It’s interesting. We have quite a few people that have some ties out here in this area, and it’s been fun for them to come back and be here a week.

Q. Coach [Marcus] Freeman, you played in the Fiesta Bowl in 2009 as a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes against Texas. A couple other times you’ve been out here for the game. What does it mean for you to coach in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl after having played in the game?

COACH FREEMAN: This is almost like the home away from home. I played three out of my five bowl games here in Arizona. And so it’s always been a great bowl game. The result might not have always been what you want, but this bowl game is to me as good as it gets.

And so as a coach, you’re honored. You’re honored to be a part of what a great contest that we’re going to have tomorrow and to represent such a great university. I’m thrilled and couldn’t be more excited to be out here.