Inside the QB room competition
Emily DeFazio | Friday, April 30, 2021
The quarterback position battle has been one of the most anticipated aspects of the postseason. With graduate student Ian Book’s departure after a five-year career at Notre Dame, the door has been opened for someone to step in and take the reins for the team. Who that will be, however, has been highly contested, even within the program itself.
The field has essentially been narrowed down to three potential candidates — graduate student transfer Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne and early-enrollee first-year Tyler Buchner — though even that can be debated.
Head coach Brian Kelly said it is set up to be a battle primarily between Coan and Pyne. As of the beginning of spring practices, the two are getting equal reps with the first and second groups of players and will be on opposing teams for the Blue and Gold Game. But that doesn’t mean anything is set in stone. Kelly says that he has continued to see strong plays from Buchner with each practice, and he is thus proving to be a strong contender.
“I think we evaluate that from day to day,” Kelly said of the position. “I think that’s a battle that continues to take shape.”
Kelly is going to give this battle a good portion of the stage this weekend.
“I’ve put some controls on what we’re gonna do defensively,” Kelly said, which leaves room for more experimenting from the pocket. This approach will starkly contrast the 2019 Blue and Gold Game, when Kelly said he knew it would be Book taking the snap and because of that, he told the defense to turn it on. This ultimately forced Book to get rid of the ball quickly in order to not face a sack.
“If we’re not able to pass protect at the level that we’re capable of,” Kelly said, “I don’t think I would’ve put the rosters the way I have, I think the guys that are gonna be out there are going to be able to protect and put the quarterbacks in a position where they can be competitive and makes some plays.”
Buchner hails from La Mesa, California, and comes to Notre Dame as the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the nation. It has been over a year since he has played football due to the fact his senior season was postponed to spring 2021, a time by which he was already an early enrollee at Notre Dame.
This group of mid-year players that Buchner is a part of has been one that Kelly said he is especially impressed with.
“I actually commented after practice, ‘Man, what a whirlwind for those guys,’” Kelly said. “We throw them right into the deep end — academically, in the weight room and then on the football field — and they’re doing a terrific job, and Tyler’s no exception to that.”
Over the course of the spring season, Kelly said he has seen some of the “rust” come off of Buchner’s gameplay. He mentioned that Buchner seems more confident in himself and more comfortable with the throws and plays he has to make.
However, according to Kelly, there is still a little way to go for Buchner in terms of getting the starting position.
“You’ve got to understand that there’s some development that has to take place,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t know our offense … but he’s a quick study. He’s a really good athlete.”
And Kelly has a plan to test just how quick a learner Buchner is.
“We’re gonna probably let Tyler Buchner in the first half and not have a red jersey on,” Kelly said Thursday, “You know he hasn’t played in a year, so we’re gonna use the first half to allow him to really be a part of this game without a red jersey. If he’s in there, we’ll see a little bit of his escapability.”
Fans got to catch a glimpse of what it would look like to have Drew Pyne at the helm when he stepped in for Book at the CFP Rose Bowl game against Alabama. Out of all three options, Pyne is the only one with any experience as an Irish player.
Especially because Pyne has already been a part of the program, Kelly said he and his staff want him to be a competitor for the top spot, saying they are not going to simply hand Coan the position.
Pyne has consistently been described as a “quick study,” with both Ian Book and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees commenting on Pyne’s strong work ethic. Pyne describes his drive to constantly improve as “never staying complacent with where you are the day before.” He said he hopes to carry this mindset into next season, focusing on the goal to consistently progress his gameplay.
As for Kelly, he has gone so far as to say exactly what he wants from Pyne this season: “We want Drew to be the starter.”
Brushing off the concern that the competition for the position would faze Pyne, Kelly said Pyne is “built for this” competition after many people doubted whether or not he could be the starter.
“He relishes these opportunities, and he’s always succeeded,” Kelly said. “It just motivates him even more.”
Coan originally was committed to Notre Dame for lacrosse before switching gears to play Division 1 football. Once he entered the mix at Notre Dame, the graduate transfer from Wisconsin has spurred a lot of questions as to who will start come the fall. Many have favored him to take the QB1 spot — why take a grad transfer if you don’t plan on using him? However, as Kelly himself pointed out, not everything is settled.
Kelly said Coan’s transition has been a relatively smooth one, with the other quarterbacks being excited to have him in the room with them. Coan’s experience as a quarterback brought both trust and motivation among his teammates.
He already comes in with a track record from Wisconsin, having completed 68% of his passes for 23 touchdowns and 3,278 yards. He also pocketed the team record for the most amount of passes made (236).
“When you’re starting quarterback, you already have great traits,” Kelly said. “His work ethic is astounding.”
Regardless of who eventually gets the QB1 position, Rees highlighted a key area of play that needs to be strengthened in order for the team to be effective — the red zone.
This is an aspect of the game the Irish struggled with last season, as they only scored touchdowns on 35 out of 60 red zone attempts.
“If we can get our red zone level to where it was on the third down, that type of efficiency in the red zone is ultimately going to lead the more points,” Rees said. “We can’t settle for field goals. We all know that.”
Rees commented that the offense’s peak of play in this area centered around being able to run the ball. Where the team fell short was in trying to force the ball into the end zone. This aspect is something that the new quarterback will need to improve upon.
“For myself, it’s about how do we continue to balance ourselves in the red zone without feeling like every throw needs to get us a score,” Rees said.
Kelly says that efficiency stems from the passing game on the quarterback’s part.
“Red zone proficiency is based upon decision-making, and the ability to trust and release the ball in a timely fashion in the passing game,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to trust, guys. You’ve got to be able to let the ball go, and windows open and close so quickly that there’s no time for hesitation.”
Time will tell whether the new quarterback will be able to improve this area of play for the team.
When will we know?
Though much anticipation has surrounded the quarterback position, fans will most likely have to wait a little longer to get an answer.
“I’ve always felt when it’s clearly in the best interests of the team and morale, and it can influence you moving forward, you should probably name the quarterback,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that we’re in that position right now … I’m leaning toward making that decision in camp.”