Notebook: Brian Kelly ready to end Notre Dame's quarterback competition soon
Notre Dame’s quarterback competition hasn’t ended yet, but it won’t last much longer.
Head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday following preseason practice No. 1 that he intends to make a starting quarterback decision following the sixth practice on Thursday, which will include the first day of scrimmage action.
“We just feel like we have a pretty good sense of where this is going to go,” Kelly said, “and we want to make sure that we're going to make the right decision and give everybody the chance over the next week to make their case.”
The competition on paper is a three-man race among Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne and freshman Tyler Buchner. A close reading between the lines leads to Coan being the safest bet to win the job.
The 6-foot-3, 223-pound Coan brought with him a résumé that carries weight with the Irish coaching staff. He completed 69.6% of his passes (236-of-339) for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns in 14 starts for a 10-4 Wisconsin team in 2019. Coan missed last season with a right foot injury.
“That's why we took him,” Kelly said “We didn't take him because he didn't play before. We took him because he had battle-tested experience in the Big Ten in a very good program, and quite frankly one that we respect in Wisconsin and (head) coach (Paul) Chryst and what they do. A lot of that had to do with where he came from and him being battle tested.
“From our standpoint, he came with a lot of that. He still had to earn it, and he's still earning it, but this won't be a long, drawn-out camp.”
Coan, who started with the first-team offense Saturday, was able to establish himself in spring practice alongside Pyne and Buchner, the latter of whom enrolled in February without playing a senior season at La Mesa (Calif.) Helix due to the COVID-19 pandemic pushing football to the spring in California.
The 6-1, 215-pound Buchner may have the most long-term upside for the Irish, as a four-star prospect with rare athleticism, but a short timetable to become the starter doesn’t seem to play in his favor.
The 6-0, 200-pound Pyne served as Ian Book’s backup to end last season.
“He needs to continue to be Drew Pyne and take advantage of the opportunities,” Kelly said. “He's getting first-team reps, so when he gets his opportunity, (he needs) to continue to take full advantage of them.”
Junior quarterback Brendon Clark participated in Saturday’s practice, but he’s not yet fully recovered from offseason knee surgery. Freshman quarterback Ron Powlus III, from local Penn High, was sidelined to start camp.
The impending quarterback decision will come soon, but it won’t be rushed. It will be a reflection of how much the coaching staff already knows about the options in front of it, and not a move motivated by the need to provide clarity for the rest of the offense.
“I would normally say that that is really important,” Kelly said, “but all of these guys, and in particular Drew and Jack, have a lot of respect, and our guys will be ready to go with either one of them in particular.
“Tyler is a young kid, and there would be more preparation needed there.”
Work ahead for Notre Dame’s OL
After an offseason of potential position switches, Jarrett Patterson found himself in the middle of Notre Dame’s offensive line once again.
The 6-5, 307-pound Patterson started 21 consecutive games at center before being sidelined late last season with a left foot injury. The ensuing surgery kept Patterson, a senior, out of spring practice and prevented an audition at left tackle. Kelly even wondered if Patterson could play at guard, given how well junior Zeke Correll acclimated at center and freshman Blake Fisher impressed immediately at tackle.
But the decision for Patterson, who has a case as one of the top centers in country, to return to his former position is final.
“It's hard for me to take a player and really put him in at a position where it could affect him down the road,” Kelly said. “He's done so much for our program.
“Could we be better served if he played another position? You could make the case. But my feeling was we're a good football team with Jarrett Patterson at center, and it helps him in the long run playing that position.”
The addition of Marshall grad transfer Cain Madden at guard made the decision a little bit easier, too. Madden worked with the second-team offensive line early in Saturday’s practice, but that likely won’t last long for the second-team All-American last season. The first offensive line unit consisted of left tackle Fisher, left guard Correll, center Patterson, right guard John Dirksen and right tackle Josh Lugg.
The second unit lined up with left tackle Tosh Baker, left guard Rocco Spinder, center Andrew Kristofic, right guard Madden and right tackle Michael Carmody.
However, that’s far from the finished product.
“Here's what I can tell you: Jarrett Patterson is the starting center, and Josh Lugg is going to play for us,” Kelly said. “Those two guys are the veterans on this offensive line that I can commit to right now. Everybody else has to earn their way.
“Those guys have earned their way with me and this football team. The other guys have got some work to do.”
No concern for Jordan Botelho?
The week leading up to Notre Dame’s first practice was filled with unspecific speculation on the future of sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho. So much so that Notre Dame fans demanded answers on podcasts, live chats and message boards.
Kelly provided clarity Saturday and seemed as confused as the reporters left chasing details that didn’t seem based in reality. He expects Botelho, who participated in Saturday’s practice, to be available for the full season.
“There was some kind of rumor that he wasn't cleared to play, and that hasn't been the case,” Kelly said. “Look, rumors start. Somebody thought something happened that didn't happen. We've had those happen before.
“Look, if somebody is off the team, we're going to tell you. We're going to let you know. If somebody is not playing for Notre Dame, we're going to let you know. We're not going to hide that from you.
“If there's something with academics, I can't comment on it; know what I mean? But this isn't an academic situation. This isn't a drug-testing policy situation. So I don't know where this came from, to be quite frank with you. He's cleared to play and compete.”
The vague rumors may have become believable because Botelho was sent home from Notre Dame last summer for repeatedly violating the team’s COVID-19 protocols. He’s no stranger to digging himself out of a hole with the Irish coaching staff, which may be the case again this preseason. Botelho was spotted working as a third-string vyper end early in Saturday’s practice, despite working in a rotation as a backup behind junior Isaiah Foskey in the spring.
The Irish opened camp Saturday with a pretty healthy roster. Kelly mentioned Foskey was still recovering from a minor pectoral injury earlier this summer, but he was cleared to practice. Four players missed Saturday’s practice: junior defensive end Osita Ekwonu, freshman defensive end Will Schweitzer, freshman quarterback Ron Powlus III and walk-on wide receiver Greg Mailey.
• All-America safety Kyle Hamilton needs a sidekick and a backup. The Irish have a pair of seniors — Houston Griffith and DJ Brown — tasked with filling both of those roles in some combination.
“We like the spring that Houston had,” Kelly said. “We love his leadership. We love what he's been about in terms of his makeup, so we're counting on Houston. DJ, obviously, we're counting on him to really play a significant role for us. It starts with those two guys.”
Identifying a fourth safety to trust among juniors KJ Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon and freshmen Justin Walters and Khari Gee remains on the to-do list.
• The high COVID-19 vaccination rate on Notre Dame’s roster and coaching staff has eliminated many of the masking, social distancing and testing protocols the Irish learned to operate under last season. Under the new NCAA guidelines, Notre Dame’s vaccinated players will not need to be tested regularly. Kelly said those players haven’t been required to wear masks during team workouts or meals either.
“We feel really comfortable where we are,” Kelly said. “We know that there's the potential that it could go back to that, and we've made the appropriate arrangements if, in fact, it does.”
The university required students to be vaccinated prior to the upcoming school year, but students were allowed to apply for medical or religious exemptions. Kelly said 95% of the roster has been vaccinated.
• Kelly will announce the team’s captains Monday. All five captains from last season are no longer with the program.
“I can confidently say it's the deepest group of leaders that I've had here,” Kelly said. “(In) 2019, we had seven captains. This looks like it could be similar from that perspective."
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.