Analysis: Notre Dame's Plan B at QB this season matters for the 2022 season, too

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Irish No. 2 QB Drew Pyne (10), flanked by No. 3 Tyler Buchner (12) and starter Jack Coan (17),  runs a drill during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.

SOUTH BEND — The improvement wasn’t seismic, but it was hardly nuanced, either.

In one week’s time — from training camp practice No. 6 to the 12th session last Thursday — Notre Dame freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner optically blurred the line at times between his No. 3 status and the two QBs ahead of him on the depth chart, even though the reality of that order doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.

Grad transfer Jack Coan, consistent and battle-tested, in roughly two weeks will become the eighth starting quarterback of the coach Brian Kelly Era, Sept. 5 in Tallahassee, Fla., against Florida State. All seven of his predecessors, incidentally, won their debuts.

All but two of those seven, though, eventually lost their grip on the starting job at some point via demotion. Of the remaining two — Ian Book and DeShone Kizer — only Kizer didn’t miss a start because of an injury.

All of which heightens the significance of the productive spring and summer sophomore Drew Pyne cobbled together in a race for No. 1 that leaves him as the Plan B QB for now.

“I've been in his shoes,” former ND quarterback and current Irish offensive coordinator/QBs coach Tommy Rees said of Pyne. “(When) I was his age, I was in coach (Kelly's) office and Dayne (Crist) is named the starter. And then I end up starting 12 games that year (2011).

“And so, ‘Drew, you never know where this thing's going to go.’ Drew has the right mentality that he's going to continue to prepare and do the right things. When his moment’s called, he'll be ready.”

Buchner practiced last Thursday like he was trying to prove he would be too, and fairly convincingly — in the last full session the media is likely to take in until at least next spring.

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The best runner of the five scholarship QBs from the moment Buchner stepped on campus in February as a mid-year enrollee, the best athlete ... with the strongest arm ... with the most recruiting-website love was particularly impressive in that recent session with his red-zone throws.

The previous week he regularly gave up on passing plays too early, among his other visible growing pains.

Whether Buchner’s growth curve is jagged or conventionally sloped from this point forward, there needs to be a discernible one. For Pyne too and eventually junior Brendon Clark, whom Kelly indicated recently would likely be 100 percent from protracted knee surgery rehab, finally, by the end of the month.

If you’re Kelly, you play to win in 2021, and the pecking order behind Coan should reflect that. But the player development model can’t ignore the 2022 Irish, a team that might be better constructed for a playoff run than this preseason ninth-ranked one, but with a 2022 regular-season schedule that includes Clemson AND Ohio State.

And a first-year starter at quarterback.

Notre Dame offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees looks on during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.

A year ago at this juncture, Clark had the most likely path to eventually become QB1 for the 2022 opener at Ohio State. In fact, had the right knee he had ACL surgery on in high school not deteriorated during the 2020 season to the point another operation was warranted in December, one can only wonder if the Irish would have been as aggressive in the grad transfer market this past winter.

‘I can’t answer that,” Rees said when pressed with that question last week. “We were in the situation we were in, and we made the decision based on reality.”

The reality now is that Clark and injured fifth option, freshman Ron Powlus III, don’t have an open lane to compete for the 2022 starting job. Nor realistically does recruit Steve Angeli, set to enroll early, in January.

As long as Pyne receives No. 2 practice reps and some game cameos this fall, he’ll be well-positioned to compete for No. 1 next spring. Buchner’s blueprint for the fall isn’t quite so obvious.

For starters, there’s a chance, as the No. 3 QB. he might have a more prominent game day role than No. 2 Pyne, as perhaps a niche/changeup QB. Think Rees in 2012 and Book in early 2018 before the latter became the starter in game 4.

Kelly was open to that niche concept after Buchner surged late in the spring, but there’s no tactical advantage for Kelly or Rees to be anything but vague about it when asked between now and the start of the season.

Beyond that, the Irish coaching staff at times has parked the No. 3 option on the scout team for most or all of the season. While those QBs would receive valuable reps to sharpen their skills against the No. 1 Irish defense daily in practice, they weren’t learning the Notre Dame offense.

That, for example, came back to bite Brandon Wimbush in 2017 as a first-year starter. Had Wimbush spent more time with the varsity in 2016, would it have been enough to get ND past Georgia early in 2017?

And he wasn’t the only one who atrophied or stalled in key development areas because of that approach.

Would former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon  Wimbush (7) have had more success had there been less scout team and more time with the varsity before he became the starter?

In Buchner’s case, would a steady diet of mental reps this season and mostly watching Coan and Pyne practice be any better than constant scout team duty?

For the perceived prodigy a hybrid approach — at least to start — makes the most sense. And that’s the direction that Rees and Kelly seem to be favoring.

Because of an injury as a high school sophomore at the Bishop’s School in San Diego and no fall season his senior season at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif., Buchner had just one year of high school starting experience.

So he needs reps, period.

And with Powlus hurt and Clark easing back toward form, Buchner may be the default scout team option for Florida State. And also the best one.

Who better to mimic Seminoles quarterback Jordan Travis, FSU’s leading rusher in 2020, or electric UCF transfer McKenzie Milton? That also holds true seemingly in prepping for Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder — who rushed for 12 TDs and nearly 600 yards in 10 games last season — in October, and QB Jeff Sims, Georgia Tech’s leading rusher in 2020, in November.

But with Buchner, it shouldn’t be minimized that when given the opportunity to run Notre Dame’s offense, he’s shown significant surges even though they’re not always sustained without some temporary steps back.

“It might have to be a rotation or it might have to be something where we’re building things a certain way,” Rees said of the scout team options, something he was never a part of during his ND playing career.

“But we’re always going to do what’s right by the team and then we’re always going to do what’s right by the individual and there’s a constant drive to improve throughout the season.”

That’s not what happened in 2019, when Phil Jurkovec regressed in different albeit circumstances under since-deposed offensive coordinator Chip Long. And now at Boston College, Jurkovec is being mentioned as a possible NFL first-round draft pick.

The good news for the Irish is that eight of the past 12 national champions, including Alabama last season, had a first-year starting QB guiding them. So the code can be cracked.

That’s all the more reason tangible, significant development needs to show up next spring for Pyne — and Buchner in particular. From a pragmatic standpoint and a perceptual one.

Those four- and five-star QB prospects in the 2023 class with whom Rees is making meaningful inroads on the recruiting trail will be watching.

And keeping score.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI