How Tyler Buchner prepared to be the next-level quarterback Notre Dame covets

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Tyler Buchner had a realistic chance of being Notre Dame's starting quarterback next season.

Then the Irish landed a graduate transfer commitment from Jack Coan a few weeks ago. Snatching Coan from the University of Wisconsin brought Notre Dame much-needed experience at quarterback as he started 18 games for the Badgers.

Three-year starter Ian Book left a void at the position after finishing his Irish career last season. Junior Brendon Clark, sophomore Drew Pyne and incoming freshmen Ron Powlus III and Buchner are their other scholarship quarterbacks. None of them have started in a collegiate game. All of them have freshmen eligibility.

Buchner, a four-star recruit in the 2021 class, comes in with lofty expectations. He could be the next face of Notre Dame football. Before that happens, though, he likely needs Coan to complete his one remaining season of eligibility this fall.

“Jack is a great kid. He comes from a great family,” said Buchner, who connected with Coan earlier this month. “He’s obviously super talented. I’m excited to have him in the room. ... If anything, it will be awesome to learn from him. He is super experienced, played well at Wisconsin and I know he’s a great quarterback. So I’m excited to play alongside him.”

Former Irish star Rick Mirer understands what awaits Buchner at Notre Dame and the anticipation surrounding his upcoming arrival.

Not just because Mirer has known Buchner and his family since they relocated near him in the San Diego area approximately a decade ago. But also because Mirer lived through what Buchner might experience after he officially joins the Irish football team next month.

In 1989, Mirer arrived at Notre Dame from Goshen High as one of the most heralded quarterbacks from his recruiting class. He spent year one sitting behind starter Tony Rice, who finished No. 4 in the Heisman Trophy voting that season. Then Mirer finished his college career considered among the best quarterbacks in Irish history.

Being the understudy to a veteran like Coan could benefit Buchner. Learning from Rice did the trick for Mirer.

“That’s a very positive thing for him to have a very experienced guy in the room,” Mirer said. “He knows he’s going to compete. Regardless of who the guys are, you are fighting to get on the field. Having somebody to learn from and spend the time with in the film room is valuable.”

There will be plenty of changes in Buchner’s life. He will be more than 2,000 miles away from home. South Bend won’t be 72 degrees and sunny every day. Academics are more challenging. The competition improves dramatically. The strength and conditioning program and nutritional plan will require an adjustment.

There’s a reason Tommy Rees is the only Irish quarterback since 2008 and eighth ever to start a game as a true freshman. And maybe Buchner needs a season to learn and develop while on the bench anyway. He brings only one high school season of full-time starting experience.

Tommy Rees (11) is the only Notre Dame quarterback to start at least one game as a true freshman since 2008.

In his first season at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif., Buchner threw just 37 passes as the backup. Four plays into his sophomore season, Buchner suffered a torn ACL in his left knee.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Buchner rebounded with a prolific junior campaign. He finished No. 3 all-time among high school players nationally in total yards (6,084) and yards per game (468) in a single season. He also recorded 81 total touchdowns.

Still, Buchner needed more of a challenge. At The Bishop’s School, he faced relatively weak competition. So last summer, he transferred to Helix Charter High in La Mesa, Calif. The COVID-19 pandemic kept Buchner from playing his senior season, though. The state of California delayed high school football to the spring. Buchner graduated last semester.

“He played in a smaller program and had plans to play for a bigger program, probably the best team in town, this past fall,” Mirer said, “but that just didn’t happen. Experience is the only knock, if it is. He’s as athletic as you can get. He makes it look easy. So now it’s just going to come down to if he can handle the X’s and O’s.

“I like his situation. I didn’t want him to feel like there was a lot of pressure right on day one. He’s pretty raw, but they are going to like his skills when they see him on the field.”

Beyond Coan, there are two quarterbacks who have been in the program longer than Buchner. He still has much to prove. He may have to wait a season. But when the time comes, Buchner could replicate Mirer’s path.

The pandemic and time off since graduation provided him more time to prepare.

“My life right now is pretty much football,” Buchner said. “I’m home, I’ve been out of school for a month and all my buddies have been in school. So I have nothing else to do. It’s lift, run, throw, watch film, football. The satisfaction knowing you gave your all for a workout is really rewarding.

“I know most people can relate to that. When you go on a run and eat healthy for a day, you feel good. That’s similar to me. I’ve learned to love it the past couple months.”

Unconventional talent

Notre Dame quarterback signee Tyler Buchner (left).

College coaches did not need a season of film to be sold on Buchner.

UCLA offered Buchner a scholarship the summer before his freshman year. Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, USC and Oregon were among other major programs to offer Buchner prior to his first season as a full-time starter.

In May 2018, an assistant coach for the Trojans was so impressed with Buchner that he extended an offer after observing him throw only one pass in person. One month later, Buchner competed at a Notre Dame recruiting camp and left with an offer.

Part of what made Buchner so attractive was his distinct skill set. He’s not a pocket passer. He’s not even a typical dual-threat quarterback. Buchner connects on throws that most don’t dare to attempt.

Buchner will complete passes 40 yards downfield off his back foot. He will throw across his body while on the run. He will change his throwing motion or release the ball from an angle to squeeze it through a tight window.

“He can make any throw off platform and make it work,” said Taylor Kelly, the former Arizona State quarterback who trains Buchner at 3DQB. “He is so talented and strong."

Kelly started working with Buchner last year. He needed to train him differently than most high school quarterbacks. Buchner represented the opposite of the norm. Difficult throws were easy. Simpler throws could be challenging.

"One would be sweet, and two or three would be low, high, wouldn’t spin and all of those things," Kelly said about Buchner's struggles with easier throws. "He wouldn’t know what was wrong, whether it was his weight being forward, or ripping his front side, or his posture was bad, or his feet were too slow. We challenged him to be more consistent when asked upon just to throw a rhythm out route.”

Prior to last year, Buchner worked a lot on his off-platform throws. With Kelly, they focused on sharpening his higher-percentage passes and overall consistency.

Notre Dame quarterback signee Tyler Buchner recorded 81 total touchdowns in his junior season at La Jolla (Calif.) The Bishop's School.

“It’s about finding the same platform and base I do on the deep balls and harder throws,” Buchner said, “but keep that same base, platform and mechanics through every single throw. If you keep those same mechanics on every throw, every ball is going to be good. That is something I’ve been working on and getting better at every day.”

Twice per week, Buchner started his morning driving approximately 90 miles to throw with Kelly in Huntington Beach, Calif. Then he worked with Derek Samuel, a health practitioner who offers athletes physical therapy from injuries and strength and conditioning training.

Buchner joined Samuel’s decorated client list — which includes numerous NFL and college football athletes — following his ACL injury. Samuel said he noticed Buchner’s advanced physical skills almost immediately.

“He doesn’t move different. He just moves better,” Samuel said. “He moves exactly the way the highest level athlete moves. He understands how to control his feet. He understands how to control his hips. He knows where to put his shoulders over his pelvis. No high school kid is going to know how to do that.”

In Samuel’s 23 years of practice, no high schooler has been put through the type of program he had Buchner complete. Samuel said he created a program for Buchner as if he was preparing for NFL training camp.

“As gifted as Tyler is physically, which is considerable," Samuel said, "I would argue he’s probably more gifted mentally. The first thing that an elite-level athlete has to do is learn how to suffer. If you don’t know how to suffer, your physical gift is only going to get you so far.

“With Tyler, that ability to suffer, he’s very indifferent to it."

Samuel said Buchner recently squatted 365 pounds an impressive five times. Training like an NFL quarterback five times per week seemed to pay off for Buchner.

“I feel stronger,” Buchner said. “I feel healthier. My health is really good. I’m not hurt or anything. This is the healthiest and strongest I’ve been. I feel good.”

Helix experience

Notre Dame quarterback signee Tyler Buchner transferred from La Jolla (Calif.) The Bishop's School to La Mesa (Calif.) Helix Charter High last summer.

Helix head coach Robbie Owens took the why not approach when adding Buchner to his football program.

Sure, he did not know Buchner well at the time. Sure, Buchner might be like a rental. Sure, there was uncertainty about whether a fall season would happen. Even if Buchner never played a down because of COVID-19, Owens saw value.

And he continued to treat Buchner like his No. 1 quarterback until the end.

“Those (highly recruited) guys make an impact on all the younger guys,” Owens said. “They see how they work, the nuances, their technique and all those things. His presence, who he is and how he is as a person made us better as a football program even though we didn’t get to play a game with him.”

The Highlanders often had the same schedule each week. They had practice Tuesday and Thursday. They had quarterback meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They had team meetings on Monday and Wednesday.

Even when it became clear that Buchner would not play for Helix, he poured himself into all of it.

“I pretty much had no other choice,” Buchner said. “Going to practice is better than not going to practice. So I was going to get the reps that I could. I enjoyed my time there. The coaches and players were super welcoming and friendly. It was a great culture.”

Owens and Buchner said they benefited from their football marriage. They dissected film from Notre Dame games together and picked the other’s brain about scheme.

At Helix, Buchner said he learned how to read through his progressions from sideline to sideline. The Bishop’s School’s offense often had the quarterback read half the field, Buchner said.

“I instantly knew Tyler’s football I.Q. was very high because of the way he interacted with our guys when they were running routes," Owens said. "He would say, ‘Hey, understand that I’m going to try to get the ball really quick, so get your head around.’ Or, ‘Hey, you have a little bit more time on this route. So you can get a little bit deeper.’

“I told our coaches that he was the real deal just because he has that leadership quality, quarterback swagger, he’s able to communicate the nuances of the game with guys. I could see that instant credibility right off the bat.”

Studying Notre Dame games with Owens only took Buchner so far. Buchner wanted to learn the playbook he received from the Irish coaching staff a few months ago. So he laid out a comprehensive testing schedule.

Every Sunday for the past few months, Buchner took a playbook test written by his mother, Audrey. Every other Sunday, he was tested on all the material he digested by that point.

“So I’m studying the plays, watching the film on those plays from the week they played and I get tested on them,” Buchner said. “So she was awesome with that. It’s been super helpful. The best way to learn is to actually put it to test."

At Notre Dame, Buchner will be asked to master an entirely new system. Doing so may feel familiar after Buchner dove into Helix’s football program.

“He needed a fall season,” Owens said. “He needed to compete at the highest level of San Diego football with Helix. He needed that for his growth. And when that was taken away from him, he did a good job of making sure there was continued growth in himself.”

The next step

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) runs the ball in front of Alabama's DeMarcco Hellams (29) on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

The biggest challenge that comes with replacing Book could be the possibility that Notre Dame needs an upgrade from the winningest quarterback in program history to capture a national championship.

Book deservedly earned the reputation as a winner, tallying a 30-5 record as a starter. He finished No. 2 in Irish history in career passing yards and career passing touchdowns. But Book bringing Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff twice in three years proved to be a statistical anomaly of sorts.

Winning a national championship often requires a team to have an elite passing offense. Six of the last 11 national champions were top two nationally in passing efficiency. All but three of the 16 teams to make the CFP in the past four seasons ranked in the top 16 in passing efficiency.

Notre Dame appeared in the CFP in 2018 and 2020 despite finishing both seasons at No. 43 in passing efficiency. Clemson represents the third outlier, coming in at No. 62 in 2017-18. The last time the Irish finished top 19 in pass efficiency came in 2009, one season before the Brian Kelly Era began. Notre Dame boasted the fourth-ranked offense in pass efficiency that season under quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

Having a dynamic passing attack will require the Irish to improve in multiple areas. More speed and explosiveness at wide receiver would help. Better quarterback play also figures to be a must.

Will Buchner be the one who pushes Notre Dame from great to elite? Maybe, maybe not.

“He knows what he’s getting into,” Mirer said. “It’s going to be a challenge every day in practice. Every snap. Every decision. I’m not there to see that, but I know how it works. They are going to hug him after they yell at him. That’s just how it goes. You’ve got to make your mistakes. You learn from it.

“At some point in your life, you hit that point where you are not the best, most experienced or most qualified. There are veteran guys. There are All-Americans. Different positions and all these different captains and guys who are allowed to talk.

“He just has to accept his role day one and take it on the chin sometimes. We’ve all had to do it. Everyone in the Hall of Fame had to do it.”

Soon, Buchner will start his first spring football campaign. What he experienced the past several months makes him feel confident about being ready for what’s next.

“I’m excited for a couple reasons,” Buchner said. “One, going to school and being a freshman. I’m only going to be a freshman one time, so I’m excited to meet people, meet new friends and go to college.

“The second part is obviously the football aspect. I’m so excited to compete, to get better and to learn. All those sort of things get me juiced up. I can’t wait to get to campus. This spring, my goals are just to improve as much as possible, soak everything in and keep getting better.

“I learned to love to get better the last couple months. Now I’m just excited to continue that.”

Notre Dame signee Tyler Buchner trained with former Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly in the offseason.