The most compelling options in Notre Dame’s open quarterback competition might still be learning the intricacies of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
That’s because Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan and four-star phenom Tyler Buchner just settled into Notre Dame’s campus this past weekend as mid-year enrollees.
Coan arrived with a résumé of 18 starts with the Badgers and the experience of playing in the Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl at the end of the 2019 season. Buchner brought with him a boatload of potential despite completing only one full season as a starting quarterback in his high school career.
The two now get to spend the next seven months competing for the chance to succeed three-year starter Ian Book.
“We have the ability to evaluate all of our guys and allow them to showcase their strengths and give them an opportunity to lead this offense,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Tommy Rees said Wednesday. “We are never shy about adding competition to this group. It’s going to be an extremely competitive year. I do believe that brings out the best in guys. I can’t tell you how excited I am just to get going and start this new chapter.”
The new chapter officially began Wednesday with the first day of classes for the spring semester. The Irish won’t start spring football until late March or April, but the competition is already underway. It unofficially began Jan. 4 when the Irish received a transfer commitment from Coan.
Rees and head coach Brian Kelly decided the quarterback room needed an experienced option to compete with Buchner, fellow freshman Ron Powlus III, sophomore Drew Pyne and junior Brendon Clark for the 2021 season. Neither Clark (four games played) nor Pyne (three games) started during their young ND careers serving as backups behind Book.
Coan, who missed the 2020 season with a right foot injury, provided what the Irish needed. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Coan guided Wisconsin to a 10-4 record in 2019. He finished the season 236-of-339 passing (69.6%) for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns with five interceptions for a passing efficiency rating of 151.8, which ranked No. 19 in the FBS.
“The exciting thing for me was when I had the conversation with the other quarterbacks that we were going to be bringing in a grad transfer,” Rees said, “to a man they all were excited about the opportunity to bring in a veteran that can help improve them, that can help make them better, that can help add competition to the room.”
“The short time I’ve been around Jack and the conversations we had leading up to now, he is an extremely mature young man. He is one that has won a lot of football games in a very competitive conference. Since the day we first talked, he has been nothing but very mature and business-like in his approach.”
That presence already has been felt, said Kelly, who didn’t take questions during an online press conference Wednesday that later included Rees, recruiting coordinator Brian Polian, associate head coach Mike Elston and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
“I’m really excited about Jack coming in and joining us,” Kelly said. “A veteran quarterback. I really like his presence already. You can feel his veteran leadership in our program. We’re excited about what that brings to our program.”
Yet Coan’s addition hasn’t closed the door on Buchner leapfrogging the other candidates and starting as a freshman. That might be a lot to ask for from a young quarterback with so little game experience after missing most of his sophomore season with a torn ACL in his left knee and his senior season due to California’s COVID-19 restrictions, but the Irish are plenty aware of what Buchner can do.
Rees joked Wednesday that it feels like he’s been recruiting the 6-2, 205-pound Buchner for 10 years. Buchner landed a Notre Dame scholarship offer following his performance at ND’s Elite Skills Camp in June 2018 when he had yet to start his sophomore year at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif.
Buchner’s sophomore season ended in the first quarter of the first game when he injured his knee carrying out a fake punt. Yet the Irish stuck with their pursuit of Buchner and received a verbal commitment from him the following March.
“The thing that jumps out about Tyler is those intangible things that you may not see on film, which is fantastic,” Rees said. “His test score coming out of high school: through the roof. His ability to retain information in almost a weirdly smart way that’s borderline photographic. He’s able to retain things and spit them back to you.
“The way that his peers, his high school coaches, people who spoke about him in the area. The maturity level that he carries himself with on a day-to-day basis. He really encompasses everything we’re looking for in a quarterback at Notre Dame.”
Buchner showed that promise in a prolific junior season in which he accumulated 4,474 passing yards, 53 passing touchdowns, 1,610 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns. 247Sports slates Buchner as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback and No. 90 overall in the 2021 class. Rivals ranks Buchner as the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback and No. 114 overall.
But can the Buchner hype lead to a starting role as a freshman? Rees isn’t ready to rule out the possibility.
“It’s going to be a process,” Rees said. “We have an extremely talented group in the quarterback room. We’re excited about all the guys and their opportunities to help us win games.
“At the end of the day, playing the quarterback position is about putting your offense in positions to win. It’s putting your offense in positive plays one after the other. It’s about leading the team down the field, stringing together first downs and putting points on the board.
“Whichever quarterback in our group is able to do that most successfully is going to have a chance to play here. If that’s Tyler early, that’s Tyler.”