Notebook: Brian Kelly isn't ready to end Notre Dame's quarterback competition yet

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s quarterback competition likely won’t end with Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne will play on opposite, balanced teams to allow Notre Dame’s coaching staff to evaluate both of them fairly.

“I’ve always felt that when it’s clearly in the best interest of the team and morale and it can influence you moving forward, you should probably name the quarterback,” head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “I don’t know that we’re in that position right now, because we’re getting really good leadership from those guys. I don’t feel like that’s going to move the needle in the locker room at all at this point.

“I kind of like the competition that continues to go. It’s really spirited. I’m leaning towards making that decision in camp when we come in more so than maybe establishing that sometime after the spring.”

Through 14 spring practices, Coan and Pyne have split reps with the starting offense. That will change Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT on Peacock), because there won’t be a No. 1 offense. Both will be matched with a mixture of projected starters and players pushing for larger roles and play against defenses with a similar combination.

That should prevent either Coan or Pyne getting stuck in the sack-fest that was the 2019 Blue-Gold Game. Backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec was sacked 12 times playing with the No. 2 offense. Starting quarterback Ian Book was sacked three times.

Defenders weren’t allowed to physically sack Book and Jurkovec, and they won’t get the chance to do so against Coan and Pyne either. It will fall on the officials to blow the play dead if they feel the pass rush gets too close.

Kelly said he’s confident the offensive line combinations can handle the pass rushers presented to them. The Irish can also play less aggressively on defense if that becomes an issue.

“If we’re not able to pass (protect) at the level I think we’re capable of, I don’t think I would have put the rosters the way I have,” Kelly said. “The guys that are out there are going to be able to protect and put our quarterbacks in a position where they can in fact be competitive and make some plays.”

Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner won’t be off limits from pass rushers in the first half. Kelly said they want to get Buchner some truly live reps since he didn’t get a chance to play his senior season due to COVID-19 cancellations in California.

“We're going to use the first half to allow him to really be part of this game without a red jersey,” Kelly said. “So if he’s in there, we’ll see a little bit of his escapability.”

Safety first

Houston Griffith’s spring has gone so well that Kelly named him one of two captains for Saturday’s scrimmage. Griffith will be the captain for the Gold team. Linebacker Shayne Simon will captain the Blue team.

Those two accumulated the most points on their respective teams through the SWAT (Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Team) program.

The spring was particularly important for Griffith, who had to be convinced by Kelly and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to stick with the Irish after spending a couple of January weeks in the transfer portal. The 6-foot, 204-pound Griffith showed his commitment to Notre Dame in preparing for his senior season.

“Houston’s done it in the weight room,” Kelly said. “He’s done it in spring ball. He solidified his position.”

That position will likely be in the starting lineup alongside junior Kyle Hamilton, who missed the spring with an ankle injury. Kelly was pleased with the work fellow senior DJ Brown (6-0, 194) did in Hamilton’s absence.

“What I like about DJ is he’s playing within himself,” Kelly said. “He is playing to his strengths. With Kyle coming back, to have those three guys in a solid position and now working towards that fourth, that’s a pretty good feeling after the spring.”

Recruiting presence

Kelly doesn’t want the final month of the NCAA’s COVID-induced dead period to be wasted. The Irish plan to make the month of May a productive one on the virtual recruiting trail.

Under normal circumstances, Notre Dame’s coaching staff would be allowed to hit the road in May to gain more information on prospects during the evaluation period and make their presence felt with top targets. They have a plan to accomplish that while being stuck at home with increased communication.

“It’s important that we as a staff are felt in the month of May in our geographical recruiting areas,” Kelly said. “Touching base with all those recruits, those high school coaches, counselors — those that allow those evaluations to take place.”

The dead period, which was put in place March 13, 2020, will finally be lifted on June 1. Then Notre Dame expects to host dozens of prospects for camps and official visits.

“The ability to evaluate when they come on your campus is crucial in this process,” Kelly said. “Then for us really utilizing the official visits, which we have a number of official visits already set in stone. June will be extremely busy with official visits and evaluations for our camps that are already publicized.”

The Irish plan to host camps starting Thursday, June 3 and each Tuesday and Thursday through June 24. The Irish Invasion camp, which typically features some of Notre Dame’s top targets, is scheduled for June 6. Most official visits will occur on weekends.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly doesn’t anticipate ending the quarterback competition, which includes pictured sophomore Drew Pyne, before the Irish return to preseason in August.