Notebook: Brian Kelly doesn't plan to announce Notre Dame's starting QB before VT game

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — By the time you’re reading this, Brian Kelly may have already informed Notre Dame’s quarterbacks of his decision. 

The Irish head coach said the decision of which quarterback will start Saturday at Virginia Tech (3-1) had already been made when he spoke to reporters Monday during his weekly press conference.

“We’ll talk to the guys today when they come over,” Kelly said Monday, “but it’s not any different than what I kind of mentioned to everybody here (after Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati), that we’re going to have one guy and we’re going to let him know that the reps are for him to be the starter, and focus on one guy. We just haven’t had a chance to talk to them yet.” 

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) throws the ball during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Though the decision will be clearly communicated to the team, Kelly said he doesn’t have plans to make that decision public ahead of kickoff in Blacksburg, Va. (7:30 p.m. EDT on ACC Network).  

“I probably won’t announce it,” Kelly said. “I’ll probably just talk to the kids. We’ll rep it. You guys will do fine investigative work and probably figure it out anyways.”

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The official depth chart released Monday by No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) didn’t reveal any changes. It listed, in order, graduate senior Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne and freshman Tyler Buchner as the team’s top three quarterbacks as it has all season. All three quarterbacks played against Cincinnati, a situation that shouldn’t occur against Virginia Tech barring injuries. 

The way Notre Dame’s offense operated in the second halves against Wisconsin and Cincinnati with Pyne at quarterback might be enough to earn him the job. The mobility that both Pyne and Buchner bring to the position is an asset that Coan clearly lacks. 

The ability to protect the football should be paramount too. Both Coan and Buchner threw interceptions in the first half against Cincinnati, which allowed the Bearcats to build an 10-0 lead on the way to a 24-13 victory. 

The 6-foot, 200-pound Pyne fumbled once against Wisconsin but has yet to throw an interception. His passing numbers (15-of-30 for 224 yards and two touchdowns) haven’t been overwhelming, but he hasn’t had a chance to prepare as the starter either.  

Notre Dame’s Jack Coan (17) calls a play during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The flaws for the 6-3, 223-pound Coan, who started all five games, have shown to be his inability to escape the pass rush and his lack of consistently quick decisions on throws. He put forth a passing line of 91 completions on 150 attempts for 1,100 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. His 32 carries included 48 positive yards and 122 negative yards for a net of negative 74 yards due to sacks. 

The package prepared for the 6-1, 215-pound Buchner showed promise against Toledo and Purdue but didn’t find much traction against Cincinnati. Though his future at Notre Dame might be the brightest, the Irish have to decide if he’s ready to lead the offense beyond small windows. In his three game appearances, Buchner rushed 14 times for 100 yards and completed three of his six passes for 78 yards, which included a 55-yard touchdown against Toledo and interception against Cincinnati. 

So how did Kelly come to his quarterback decision this week? 

“Who graded out well. Who played well,” Kelly said. “Nobody was perfect, as we know. At the quarterback position, there were mistakes made by all three. At the end of the day, who gives you the best chance to win?  

“This is still about winning football games. We feel like we have a team that can win the rest of their games. We want to be able to put the quarterback out there that we believe gives us the chance to do that.” 

Avoiding consecutive losses 

Notre Dame ended its 2020 season with consecutive losses to Clemson in the ACC Championship and Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The stage is certainly smaller this week at Virginia Tech, but the Irish will need to have a productive week of practice to prevent back-to-back losses. 

Kelly is 16-11 during his Notre Dame career following a loss. How will he get the Irish back on track this week? 

“First of all, you have to address why you fell short,” Kelly said. “Pointing out where did we fall short in our preparation. Where did we fall short in our process? That’s where we start. Then once we identify that, we close the book and we move on. We trust our process and go back to it and commit to it. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”  

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Kelly sensed the disappointment from his team following the loss to Cincinnati but remained confident that could be used in a positive way to prepare for Virginia Tech. 

“I don't want to take anything away from Cincinnati, but they sting more when you beat yourself,” Kelly said. “And we just really need to coach better and put our kids in better position to succeed, and our players need to play better. So, this is all in on this.  

“If there were no players in the building, you'd feel the same way, because I think the coaches feel that sting as well.” 

Notre Dame injury updates 

• Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, who leads the Irish with 32 catches for 360 yards and three touchdowns, will be able to play against Virginia Tech, Kelly said. Mayer was diagnosed with an adductor (inner thigh) strain. He played through the pain against Cincinnati and will be carefully managed throughout the week in order to make him available. 

• The left tackle position continues to be hampered by injuries. Starter Michael Carmody, a sophomore, was pulled from Saturday’s game with the right ankle injury that’s bothered him since the Toledo game. 

“Didn’t feel comfortable that he could play at the level he needed to,” Kelly said of Carmody. “So that’s why (Joe) Alt went in there. That becomes a day-to-day situation for us with him.” 

Alt, a freshman, was needed at left tackle because sophomore Tosh Baker was unavailable to play against Cincinnati due to a concussion. The Irish will learn this week if Baker can return to action. 

• Graduate senior Kurt Hinish, the team’s starting nose guard, missed his second consecutive game last week. Kelly believes Hinish, who was also dealing with a concussion, should be available to play on Saturday. 

“That becomes one where our medical team makes those final decisions relative to his readiness," Kelly said, "but there’s optimism there."

• The Irish were awaiting the results of an MRI for Joe Wilkins Jr. to gauge the severity of a knee injury. 

Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne (10) runs the ball during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Extra points 

• Kelly pointed to fatigue as a factor that may have led to senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. dropping a critical pass from Pyne in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. 

“Kevin’s seeing all press, hands on, physical. That takes up a lot of your energy and exertion,” Kelly said. “He’s running a lot of vertical routes down the field. As coaches we have to see those things.  

“We have to look at getting (Deion) Colzie in there and giving him a blow so in the second half, we don’t have a guy that’s tired. That’s on us as coaches. I take responsibility for that. In these areas, we can help our football players.” 

• A fourth-down pass by Pyne that fell incomplete in the third quarter against Cincinnati was the result of a coverage misread, Kelly said. Pyne threw the football to the wide side of the field toward wide receiver Braden Lenzy, but the throw went toward the sideline when Lenzy was continuing to run up the field. Lenzy read the coverage correctly and ran deep rather than running a comeback route. 

According to Kelly, Pyne thought Cincinnati was playing its coverage with one high safety rather than the two it was actually using. That should have told Pyne to look first to the boundary side of the field where Mayer was wide open. 

• Notre Dame’s quarterbacks have been asked to identify the mike linebacker to help set pass protections this season. That responsibility can belong to a center, particularly one as experienced as Jarrett Patterson, but Kelly said opposing linebackers are moving around so much that the job has been given to the quarterbacks with a wider vantage point. 

“It’s just so difficult sometimes to identify,” Kelly said. “You play a lot of these now, defenses like ours, where the ‘backer is sitting back for (run-pass options). You have to identify him. He’s in a hit position, but he’s sitting for an RPO. It’s made it so much more difficult to identify the mike, and that’s why it’s fallen back on the shoulders of the quarterback.”

How to watch Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech   

Who: No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. Virginia Tech (3-1) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Lane Stadium; Blacksburg, Va. 

TV: ACC Network 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 1 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.