Fighting Irish hit the practice field in Arizona for Fiesta Bowl prep

Published: Dec. 29, 2021 at 8:03 PM EST
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (WNDU) - The Fighting Irish are getting ready to take on Oklahoma State in this year’s Fiesta Bowl on Saturday.

A big storyline is Marcus Freeman’s first game as Irish head coach. The players report there has been much more energy and competition in these practices, but Freeman has been trying to walk a fine line.

On the one hand, he has to have his team ready for an explosive Oklahoma State attack. But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to push it too much physically and lose the game on the practice field.

“We’ve got to tackle,” Freeman says. “It’s hard when you have this break. You have this break from the last game of the season vs. Stanford until January 1st, and so you have to be smart in how you practice. Because what we can’t do is we can’t lose a guy because we’re in there scrimmaging. These guys are too good. Our players -- our current players -- physically are too good to be out there and tackling each other every day. You can’t do that. You’ll hurt ‘em. You have to be very strategic in terms of how you prepare, but if we don’t tackle well, we’re gonna be in trouble.”

That is especially true against Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders, who is a dual-threat quarterback. Sanders will also benefit from the return of his star running back Jaylen Warren.

Meanwhile, the Irish have to deal with the fact that their star running back won’t play. Kyren Williams declared for the NFL draft earlier this month, choosing to forgo participation in the Fiesta Bowl.

That means Notre Dame turns to a talented, but relatively young corps of running backs to fill Kyren’s shoes. One of those is freshman Logan Diggs, who sure doesn’t seem bothered by the fact he’s going to have his number called a lot more Saturday.

“Kyren was a special talent, but I feel like every year they’re recruiting to replace,” says Diggs. “So it’s my job to come in and pick up where he left off.”

“I’m pretty excited about it that I’m gonna get the opportunity to play. It’s gonna be a fair share between me, Chris and Audric. We’re all gonna have the opportunity to show the world what we have to offer, so I feel we’re all excited about it.”

The challenge is all the greater because Oklahoma State ranks 5th in the nation in run defense. They also lead the country in tackles for loss.

It’s not just the Irish offense that’s shorthanded -- their defense doesn’t have all of its big guns either.

Notre Dame’s secondary hasn’t had its best player for a good chunk of the season after Kyle Hamilton went down with a knee injury in the USC game on October 23.

During that time, the Irish secondary has seen some development. Cam Hart has emerged as the top corner on the team, and Xavier Watts is growing into a vital part of the defense.

“I’ve definitely grown more confidence because my teammates have helped me build that confidence,” says Watts. “Coaches have helped me build that confidence. People around me have definitely helped me build my confidence to go out there and feel better going out there.”

Hart echoes similar sentiments.

“I think I’ve grown up a lot,” he says. “I’ve grown in to a leader, I believe and I’ve become a person that can help the younger guys come along and allow them to learn from the mistakes that I’ve made growing into the defense. I still have things to work on like anyone else, but I’m pretty comfortable in the spot I’m in right now.”

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