Analysis: Look beyond the QB derby to the process driving Notre Dame's offensive evolution

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a day when presumptive No. 1 quarterback Jack Coan opened up about the transfer process that brought him to Notre Dame, presumptive prodigy Tyler Buchner splashed enough promise and precision to get Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s attention.

“Today we started to see some of the rust come off of Tyler Buchner,” Kelly said of the early enrolled freshman via Zoom Saturday after Notre Dame completed practice No. 4 of the 15 scheduled this spring.

“Today was a really good day for him. He was much more comfortable out there, threw the ball with a lot more confidence. And I say this in that he hadn’t played football for a year. So it was nice to see him out there. He had a smile on his face. He had some confidence.”

It’s reason for the ND fan base to smile too, especially if there are more days like Saturday for the 6-2, 215-pound Californian, who transferred high schools to La Mesa Helix for his senior season and a big step up in competition, only to have the state health officials punt on fall competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Buchner’s development this spring — and beyond — is both perceptually and pragmatically critical to Kelly and offensive coordinator/QBs coach Tommy Rees. That doesn’t necessitate an immediate depth chart climb, just an eventual one — even if that happens after Coan’s expected one-year stopover in South Bend.

More significant, though, is the process to which Kelly and Rees have committed, not only pushing Buchner forward, but Coan and sophomore-to-be Drew Pyne, too.

Pyne is splitting No. 1 reps these days with Coan, the Wisconsin grad transfer who verbally committed to play lacrosse for the Irish as a high school sophomore and would have done so for football as well, he said, had ND shown any interest in him in the 2017 football recruiting cycle.

“I grew up a Notre Dame fan … watching Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate,” the Long Island product said Saturday in his first virtual meeting with the ND media.

The rooting interest this spring inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex as well as from the outside looking in is that Coan or one of his challengers will be playing in a modernized offensive structure that mimics that of the other three teams in this past January’s College Football Playoff.

Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s ball-control, clock-control, limited-pyrotechnical scheme was a prudent path to get to the 2020 CFP, especially in an offseason compressed by COVID protocols and hiatuses.

But the next step in the program’s desired evolution is winning a game or games on the CFP stage, and that necessitated a reformulation with which Kelly is fully on board.

“This is about scoring,” Kelly said. “And so we’re going to use this spring and preseason to kind of put that together.”

Freshman QB Tyler Buchner (12) finds some running room during Notre Dame’s spring practice session on Saturday.

Notre Dame was a respectable 30th nationally in scoring, at 30.3 points per game, in 2020 but labored to scratch out 14 points in a 17-point CFP semifinal loss to Alabama on Jan. 1.

The two teams that handed the Irish (10-2) their two losses last season ranked second (Alabama, 48.5 ppg) and third (Clemson, 43.5), respectively, nationally in scoring offense. Ohio State, the fourth playoff team, ranked 11th (41.0).

“When we went into last year, we knew we had established a returning offensive line,” Kelly said. “So we were going to build (the offensive structure) with a returning offensive line and a (returning) quarterback.

“And we felt like, with the certainty of the offensive line and the quarterback and not knowing what we had at the wide receiver corps, we were going to commit ourselves to being a team that was going to exert its physicality on the offensive line.

“Now we move into ‘21 with less certainty on the offensive line, less certainty at the quarterback position. And now we know that we’ve got to score points. So we’re going to go into this spring and we’re going to kind of find out where this offense will operate most efficiently.”

The quarterbacks won’t do that unilaterally. They’ll need help from a wide receiving corps, whose standout so far this spring is the quarterback ND took in Coan’s 2017 cycle instead of him, Avery Davis, before converting Davis to a non-QB.

Prolific tight end Michael Mayer needs a sidekick in his position group. The offensive line needs to sift through some new options to replace four starters bound for the NFL.

The perceptual piece in how successful, or not, the offense initiative turns out to be goes well beyond curbing the troll population on message boards and Twitter. The only two scholarship offers Notre Dame has extended to QB prospects in the 2023 class so far are two of the most elite — Arch Manning of Isidore Newman School in New Orleans and Dante Moore of Detroit King High.

There’s enough mutual interest from both at this juncture that they’ll be watching closely how ND’s new offensive direction unfolds.

For Coan’s part in it, he’s so far navigated coming in and leading a group of strangers he didn’t know in winter workouts and embraced a facet of the game he hadn’t had to tap into since his senior season at Sayville (N.Y.) High.

Running the football.

From a passing standpoint, Coan finished 19th nationally in passing efficiency (151.8 rating) at Wisconsin in 2019, the last season in which he and ND’s departed three-year starter Ian Book were both healthy and starting.

Book was five spots behind in 24th place (149.1).

But Book rushed for 546 yards that season and 485 more in 2020 with more than 110 carries each of those years. Coan, who missed the 2020 season with a foot injury, left Wisconsin with 71 career carries, good for a net of minus-11 yards.

That after rushing for 2,533 yards and 33 TDs in three seasons as a starter at Sayville.

“When I was at Wisconsin, I’d rather hand the ball off to (two-time unanimous All American) Jonathan Taylor than me run the ball,” the 6-3, 220-pound Coan said. “But I’m excited to maybe use my legs a little bit here. I feel like I’m more athletic than a lot of people think, and I’m excited for it.”

Added Kelly, “He’s big. He’s strong. So running him is certainly going to be a part of our offense and what we ask him to do.”

Buchner, incidentally, is perceived to be the best runner of the five QBs on the roster, a group that also includes early enrolled freshman Ron Powlus III and convalescing junior-to-be Brendon Clark (knee surgery).

He’s also the most curiosity-stoking of the five, but not yet the most relevant. And if that never happens in 2021, he and Notre Dame will both be fine.

That’s not to minimize the critical juncture the program finds itself at in terms of quarterback development and offensive evolution. It’s real and palpable.

But so is the makeover Kelly has committed to. So are the aspirations he’s giving a voice to about getting back to the CFP sooner than later.

The next 11 Irish spring practices won’t come close to solving all the questions that need answers before the 2021 season kicks off with a Sept. 5 road date at Florida State.

But offensive progress, even amidst some growing pains, matters. Innovation matters. Baby steps matter.

Even big days by the current No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart matter. For the moment and for where they could lead.

Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan (17) looks downfield during Thursday’s snowy spring practice as Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees coaches him up.