SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Navy is less than two weeks removed from playing then-No. 2 Cincinnati within a touchdown and enters its game against Notre Dame last Saturday after gashing Marshall for more than 300 rushing yards in its most recent outing.
The Fighting Irish defense, meanwhile, is still steadying itself, injuries and transition fairly apparent on the heels of a 34-point, 564-yard effort a week earlier in Notre Dame's 44-34 victory against high-octane North Carolina.
First-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, aware of both the challenges of Navy's offense and the runway still left on the Notre Dame season, routinely mixes it up with his players on the practice field, never hesitant to interject himself into the practical teaching elements.
So as the Irish prepare for the renewal of their 94-year-old rivalry with the Midshipmen, Freeman was seeing the Notre Dame scout team offense, paced by a walk-on player named Chase Ketterer whose addition to the program came, in part, from his prep games against Irish head coach Brian Kelly's son, Kenzel.
Ketterer and the service team were finding a bit too much success; “if they ripped one on us, they were hootin' and hollerin,” Irish hybrid defender Jack Kiser ays.
Freeman flips a switch. The former Broyles Award finalist begins work directly with the Notre Dame scout team.
“Coach Free went over on the scout-team side and was running the scout team and he was getting on us, too,” says Jack Kiser, who noted last week's practices featured “uncomfortable moments” but ultimately yielded a better, closer-knit unit. “(Freeman) was letting us hear it. That tension between the (the scout team and the defense), you love to see it as a competitor. It was a super-fun environment, and it made everybody better.”
Ultimately, Freeman's approach – motivating but demanding – is central to the Irish's best defensive performance of the year; Navy exits Notre Dame Stadium with just two field goals, 18 yards passing and none of the progress its previous games reveal after this 34-6 bushwhacking.
“So, job well done,” Kelly says. “Checkmark on the old option. Let's go see how we handle Brennan Armstrong and the n(Virginia) Cavaliers. This is a work in progress for us.
“We like the step we took today, because the communication was really good, and the tackling was much better. We're going to cover some people next week."
Inside the team's state-of-the-art Irish Athletics Center, Freeman parks himself on the turf. Surrounding him are mostly the members of Notre Dame's WOPU Nation – the Walk-on Players Union.
Streaming on the large video board centered on the facilities east wall is practice. No element is too menial.
Freeman starts. Stops.
Communication is a point of emphasis for the Irish defense; more work now ultimately means more efficient work against Navy.
“He was doing these things called voiceovers, where he has the Navy film up, talking through,” says Irish defender JD Bertrand, “and (Freeman) is like, 'This is the kind of look we need from you.' He had our this week's practice up as well, and he was talking through like, 'Here's what we need the scout team to do better so that we can be successful on the field.'
“We put that up on the server and made sure that guys watched it. Just that greater emphasis really helped.”
The Midshipmen muster just 184 total yards of offense; their 166 on the ground is their second-fewest ever in 11 meetings against Kelly's Irish.
Eventually, Bertrand reveals that Notre Dame's scout team strikes deeper blows than Navy's offense.
“The scout team did hit a touchdown, a couple touchdowns,” Bertrand says with a laugh.
What Freeman's scout team work also does is help replenish the Irish defensive players' belief – in themselves and one another.
“We're on that continuous process of improvement,” Kiser says. “Watching, you can see that when we have energy and we're out there playing hard, we can be the best defense in the country.
“The times we get quiet and down ourselves, we've gotta pick each other up, keep that energy going. The thing is, effort and enthusiasm is not going to be questioned. That's non-debatable in our defense. It's just making sure that everybody does their job and is disciplined. We can be a very dominant defense.”
Freeman wants that dominance in any element he touches. So his WOPU work might not be finished.
“He loved running scout team so much,” says an Irish staffer, “that he might want to start running it more and more.”