Will Notre Dame freshman Tyler Buchner's Blue-Gold Game surge morph into relevance?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Unless Brian Kelly is gaslighting us, the Notre Dame head football coach emerged from Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game spring football finale with a manageable summer to-do list.

Even if the 17-3 Blue victory over the Gold at Notre Dame Stadium was notably reminiscent at times of the 2002 rendition, a portending 3-0 snoozefest in Tyrone Willingham’s first spring in his three-year regime.

Like 5-of-21 combined third-down conversions, 1-of-4 fourth-down tries, nine sacks, 18 tackles for loss, a combined 64 rushing yards on 40 carries, and three turnovers.

“We’re still trying to figure out our (offensive) identity, honestly,” sophomore running back Chris Tyree offered.

The assumption, from a purely optics standpoint Saturday, was that the identity is decidedly introverted. And that’s the opposite of where second-year coordinator Tommy Rees and Kelly are committed to coaxing it.

Then again, the only public/media peek at a Notre Dame football team ticketed for a preseason top 10 ranking wasn’t designed to impress — at least not through an offensive prism.

“We really wanted to put guys out there and force them to compete in some of the more difficult situations that they would be in,” an upbeat Kelly said. “We wanted them out there in the most difficult circumstances.

“So today that’s why you saw some sacks. That’s why you saw maybe not as many points. But it was all calculated, and (we) got exactly what we wanted out of it from that perspective.

“We’ll have a great evaluation. It allows us to move in the direction that we need to into the offseason.”

Suddenly, the most intriguing thread of that is the quarterback position. Not urgent, mind you, but fascinating.

Because of freshman Tyler Buchner.

Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan will still likely be the starter when the Irish open the 2021 season Sept. 5 at Florida State, and sophomore Drew Pyne will continue to confound those who want to write him off because of his stature (6-foot, 194 pounds).

But Buchner, unlike Pyne and Coan playing Saturday without the protective “hands off” red jersey, continued his late-spring surge and was the statistical star of the Blue-Gold Game.

What does that buy you? Comparisons to Junior Jabbie, the Notre Dame poster child for spring cautionary tales and the MVP of the 2007 Blue-Gold Game on a day when a record crowd showed up primarily to watch another freshman QB prodigy, Jimmy Clausen.

Jabbie never played a meaningful down thereafter and transferred twice — to FCS school Delaware and NCAA Div. II Edinboro each of the next two seasons.

What should it buy Buchner?

Kelly to be open-minded enough to get to the bottom of how real Saturday’s performance was and what it could turn into.

And it appears he is — from pondering a niche role for the best running QB on the roster to trying to find more equitable summer reps during the players-only workouts.

“It’s the growth progression for him. Today he took a big step up in terms of his growth,” Kelly said. “He was given more of an opportunity, obviously, by being live. He took advantage of it. He had some really good throws down the field.

“We’re never going to close the door on what can help our offense be a better offense. We’re not going to say, ‘Well, Tyler Buchner’s a freshman. He can’t play.’ If he can help our football team, we’ll find any role for somebody that can help us. He just needs to continue to grow, continue to learn.

“If he does that and we feel like when we get to the fall that there’s a role or some form of playing that can help us with Tyler Buchner, we'll certainly consider that as well. Whatever makes us better, I guess is what I’m saying, we’re certainly going to consider.”

Blue’s Braden Lenzy makes a catch during the Blue-Gold game Saturday, May 1, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The 6-1, 207-pound midyear, who enrolled with just one year of high school football starting experience, completed 6-of-9 passes for 140 yards and led both touchdown drives. He covered the final seven yards himself on the first with a QB keeper, and handed off to walk-on Leo Albano for the second.

Buchner’s 197.3 passer rating was higher than Coan’s and Pyne’s combined.

Pyne finished 11-of-23 for 146 yards and an interception. Coan was 18-of-132 for 197 and a pick.

Both had impressive moments. Both were hamstrung by splitting up offensive line units that had been used to working together and by some liberal interpretations at times at what was considered a sack.

“We want to see decision-making,” Kelly said of the QBs he had framed as 1 and 1A this spring. “We want to see management of the game. We want to see how the quarterbacks handle themselves in the pocket, out of the pocket, what kind of throws they’re making, on-platform throws.

“Tommy did a great job of giving them all the various throws that we’ve put in, so that we can continue to help them grow and develop. All in all, all of them did a fine job of what we asked them to do in this format.”

That format incidentally was a rare standard spring game, splitting up the teams evenly rather than keeping players together who are used to playing together and using a contrived scoring system for things like first downs and defensive three-and-outs.

Notre Dame’s older receivers thrived in the format — Lawrence Key III (5 catches for 115), Braden Lenzy (5 for 88) and Avery Davis (5 for 84) in particular. Freshman tight end Mitchell Evans flashed (3 for 59) as did senior tight end George Takacs (3 for 32) on a day when star Michael Mayer was put in mothballs for being 80-percent healthy.

The running game, meanwhile, had nothing to prove, and it didn’t. The line’s evolution should remedy that come August.

Marcus Freeman’s defense, playing without the schematic wrinkles that will make it more formidable in September, instead overwhelmed with its depth on Saturday.

“The way that I see things right now is that we’re a good team,” Kelly said. “And good teams are not good enough. We want to be a great team. Good teams don’t win a national championship. You have to be a great team.

“So getting that to go from good to great is the process that we’re in, and that’s what we’re seeking in this offense.”

Can Buchner help them get there?

“If it’s Pyne, if it’s Buchner, if it’s Coan, we’ve got to find a way to develop the quarterback at Notre Dame to be ready to play,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if all three can get equal reps to see that that happens.

“So something will have to give along the way as this continues to unfold when we go into camp.”

Blue’s Tyler Buchner throws the ball during the Blue-Gold game Saturday, May 1, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.