As the season grows closer, the Notre Dame quarterback battle needs to grows clearer. However, as transfer Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne, and freshman Tyler Buchner battle, the signal-caller position remains under scrutiny. Three-year starter Ian Book departed South Bend for the NFL, and it leaves the Irish with major questions at the game’s most important position. It’s a three-man race, as Coan, Pyne, and Buchner were the three Notre Dame quarterbacks prominently featured in the Blue and Gold game.
Buchner right now likely slots in as the third-string quarterback, which on most rosters may as well be a redshirt season. However, with the Irish, Buchner’s athletic abilities combined with the depth chart questions, may create an opportunity. The four-star freshman shined in the Blue and Gold game, going 6-9 for 140 yards with a rushing touchdown. The limited crowd was electric during Buchner’s time on the field, and the expectations are high for the California product. Notre Dame has long fallen short of elite play at quarterback, and there is hope that Buchner changes that.
He will almost certainly not be starting the season opener at Florida State. Only two freshman quarterbacks have played under head coach Brian Kelly – current offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and Everett Golson. Despite the rarity, it is worth noting that those two QBs did combine for a 12-3 record.
However, even if Kelly was considering Buchner, a raucous road opener is not an ideal starting point. But in an Irish offense that needs improvement, Buchner’s skillset ought not go unused. He is by far the best dual-threat on the roster, and the Irish offense has been built around that style for years. Last year, the Irish beat FSU by 16, with 363 rushing yards propelling them to 42 points. The Seminoles may struggle defensively again, and Buchner’s running ability is a big factor. If he’s used in Tallahassee, it may be an indication that Kelly wants to utilize Buchner in doses. If not, there’s a chance that 2021 serves as Buchner’s learning year, destined for only second half reps in blowouts.
Pyne is a curious case and an oft-forgotten name in this battle. However, Kelly has repeatedly praised him, and he is the only quarterback of the three to have thrown a pass for the Irish. Pyne appeared for two snaps in the 2021 Rose Bowl, filling in for an injured Book, and going one for one for seven yards. In the Blue and Gold Game, Pyne went 11-23 for 146 yards and an interception. The raw numbers weren’t impressive, but Pyne flashed some big-play ability, completing passes of 41, 32, and 22 yards. The deep ball was a weak point of Notre Dame’s offense, so Pyne’s big arm could be needed if Coan falters.
As of now, Pyne is a clear second to Coan in the quarterback battle, but his experience with the playbook could be a crucial X-Factor. As aforementioned, Brian Kelly doesn’t frequently play freshman quarterbacks – or receivers – due to the complicated nature of the Irish playbook. Coan does have experience and success in the Wisconsin system, but he’s a full year behind Pyne in learning Notre Dame’s plays. That is not likely to be a deciding factor, but if Coan doesn’t gel with the Notre Dame offense, Pyne has the knowledge to step in.
When Coan announced his transfer decision, the reaction among Irish fans was mixed. Many wanted Buchner to immediately step in as the next great Notre Dame quarterback. However, in reality, Notre Dame still wants to compete for a championship and a true freshman starter may not be the best recipe.
Coan brings success at a Power-5 program with big game experience. He pushed No. 3 Ohio State to the brink in the 2019 Big 10 Championship, and nearly knocked off sixth-ranked Oregon in the ‘19 Rose Bowl. He also put up big numbers in wins over then No. 11 Michigan and No. 8 Minnesota, the latter clinching a Big 10 West title.
Coan has a decided edge in collegiate experience, and he can manage big expectations in South Bend. While his Blue and Gold Game numbers (18-32, 197 yards) didn’t drop any jaws, Coan’s performance featured some key attributes. Like Pyne, the Wisconsin transfer stretched the field effectively, connecting on passes of 32, 25, and 24 yards. Possibly more importantly, Coan flashed a fantastic connection with projected No. 1 receiver Avery Davis. Davis reeled in five catches for 84 yards. Notre Dame’s wide receiver room is key to their 2021 success, and a great Coan-Davis connection could be a massive step.
Notre Dame Quarterback X-Factors
Can Coan Take Over?
Coan was undoubtedly successful at Wisconsin. A 10-4 record in the Big 10 is commendable, but Coan went 1-3 against top 10 opponents, and he never once threw for 300 yards in a game, sans a blowout versus Central Michigan. South Bend has been a home of quarterbacks that can be great, but fall short in big games – with Ian Book being a primary example. The Irish figure to have a great rushing attack, but they need a QB capable of taking things over in big games. With games against the high-flying offenses of USC and UNC, Notre Dame needs the ability to win shootouts – does Coan have that in the tank?
Buchner In A Niche Role
Buchner likely is not a starter. Coan is too experienced, and Pyne is a great option behind the former Badger, with a full year of learning behind Book. But, Buchner has a different skillset than Coan and Pyne. While he featured some precision accuracy in the Blue and Gold game, it’s his dual-threat ability that makes Buchner a top recruit. If Rees utilizes Buchner in various packages, it could elevate the Irish offense. Look for the electric freshman to get some run in wildcat packages or trick-play sets.
Coan’s Playbook Knowledge
Coan is a veteran, and questioning his ability to learn a playbook may seem unnecessary. But, given some previous history with new players struggling to learn the Irish system, it’s worth a look. This is Drew Pyne’s most direct path to playing time, as he is too similar a quarterback to Coan to take the starting job outright in preseason on talent alone. This isn’t a worry until it happens, but if there are unforced errors (route miscommunications, turnovers, poor offensive flow), Notre Dame may need to re-evaluate who is their No. 1 quarterback.
It’s going to be an interesting battle down the stretch in South Bend. The quarterback room arguably features three quarterbacks of starting quality, and while it’s Coan until further notice, there’s both excitement and uncertainty for the Irish.