Marcus Freeman has made noise as a recruiter since taking over as head coach at Notre Dame, building a 2023 freshman class that currently ranks No. 3 nationally.
But in the weeks after he was hired to replace the departed Brian Kelly, some of Freeman’s most important recruiting pitches were to players already at Notre Dame, trying to convince draft-eligible program cornerstones to return for another season.
A significant group – offensive linemen Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg, defensive linemen Jayson and Justin Ademilola and Isaiah Foskey, slot receiver Avery Davis, wide receiver Braden Lenzy, safety Houston Griffith and linebacker Bo Bauer among them – decided to return, putting their faith in a first-year head coach. Some, like Patterson and Foskey, could have been early-round draft picks but stayed to help maintain the culture they’d built in South Bend.
Four of the captains in Freeman’s first season are among that group and he is grateful to it for believing in him.
“They built the foundation of what I believe is the future of the Notre Dame football program under me,” Freeman said. “Notre Dame football has been successful for a really long time, but the leadership has changed and you have to rebuild that foundation to fit the new leader. I’ll be forever in debt to them. This will be a special group forever to me, because they had blind faith. They didn’t choose me to be their head coach.
“I can say this is what I want our program to do, but until it’s implemented and until it’s carried out from the players and the leaders throughout the football players and the team, that is just words on the wall. This group of seniors has really done that.”
This afternoon, a group of 25 of those seniors will be recognized prior to what, for most of them, will be their last game at Notre Dame Stadium. A few of them have another year of eligibility left and some, including Lenzy and Justin Ademilola, are still mulling whether to return, but for most of them, today’s matchup against Boston College (3-7) will be their last opportunity to get a win in front of the Irish faithful.
“There’s only one way to have a good senior night and that’s to win the game,” said Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who went through Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium as a player in 2013. “That can help motivate people, but certainly there’s no lack of motivation. … It’s a big game for us, we still have a lot to accomplish this season.”
No. 18 Notre Dame (7-3) has won four games in a row and has taken eight straight against Boston College, the only other Catholic school in the FBS, since 2009.
The Eagles, in their third year under coach Jeff Hafley, are suffering through a down season but are coming off a galvanizing triumph, 21-20 over then-No. 17 N.C. State.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, beat Navy 35-32 last week but was outscored 19-0 in the second half and managed only 12 total yards after halftime.
Still, the Irish have scored 35 points in four straight games for just the 10th time in program history.
“When you watch our games, especially recently, we’ve been taking what we have. Clemson, we ran the hell out of the ball. Against Navy, we knew they were gonna be loading the box and you look at that game everything we wanted happened in the first half,” said Lenzy, who in that game had season-highs with five catches and 67 yards and added a highlight-reel touchdown in which he pinned the ball against the defender’s back in the end zone.
“I promise you we got everything we wanted in the second half, just one little inch of a throw, one little inch of a block and we have three to four more touchdowns for sure.
“If we have the looks we want, we’ll deliver.”
If the Irish are able to secure another rivalry victory, the seniors will have a chance to reflect on what they built in their final seasons in South Bend.
“I haven’t been part of a team yet at Notre Dame that has been this close,” Lugg said. “The locker room environment is contagiously good for this program. I hope it continues after this senior class leaves and I know it will continue because everyone from the top down is committed to the process of being together and sacrificing for one another.”