Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame QB Jack Coan looks to complete long football journey with a win
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The dream for Jack Coan always included a Notre Dame football uniform.
As a high school quarterback from Sayville, N.Y., who was once committed to play lacrosse for the Irish, Coan couldn't have imagined the route to South Bend would have included four seasons and 18 starts at Wisconsin.
Even when Coan committed to a graduate transfer to Notre Dame in January, he couldn't have mapped out his final college football season the way its transpired.
Coan experienced the highs of dramatic victories to open the season against Florida State and Toledo. He felt the lows of a loss to Cincinnati and the second-half benching that came with it.
Then Coan flipped from zero to the hero in a comeback victory at Virginia Tech after being benched in the second quarter. And he closed the season with seven consecutive victories to earn No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) a spot in Saturday's Fiesta Bowl (1 p.m. EST on ESPN) against No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2).
What a ride.
"Every day feels like a blessing to be here," Coan said Tuesday, "and I’m super excited for this last opportunity.”
New head coach Marcus Freeman has stressed the importance of winning Saturday's game for the seniors like Coan who won't wear a Notre Dame football uniform again. There are only four scholarship players on Notre Dame's roster who will have no more NCAA eligibility on Saturday — Coan, right guard Cain Madden, nose guard Kurt Hinish and kicker Jonathan Doerer — but plenty others who won't be back next season.
Though running back Kyren Williams and safety Kyle Hamilton opted to sit out the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft, Coan appreciates the emphasis that Freeman and the rest of the Irish have placed on Saturday's game.
“It means a ton to me," Coan said. "I certainly want to go out with a win.
"When you’re at a place like Notre Dame a lot of guys are used to being in the playoff, so you might take a breath or a step back (because) you’re not in the playoff. But for (Freeman) to say that we’re going to do this, this is a business trip and we’re going to go out and win means a ton to me. It would mean everything to end my career with a win.”
Coan, who enters Saturday completing 215 of his 318 passes for 2,641 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions, provided a steady presence through the last seven games with an improved offensive line in front of him. Coan completed at least 66% of his passes in each of those seven victories.
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has been more than pleased with Coan’s performance after recruiting him to join the Irish in the offseason.
“Everything that we thought we were getting in Jack we underestimated,” Rees said Tuesday. “He was more than we thought we were getting. From an intangible standpoint, a personality standpoint, leadership, being the guy in the room, being the guy in front of the offense, that was all more than we anticipated.
“From a physical standpoint, I said it from the first practice we had him. He’s physically more gifted than he was advertised. His ability to make all the throws, his ability to stand firm in the pocket, his mental capacity to play this position is as high as anyone in the country. He’s been extremely underrated throughout this entire season.”
Even though tight end Michael Mayer was only entering his sophomore season at Notre Dame, he made a point to help Coan adjust to life in South Bend. The connection between the two has been obvious with Mayer leading the team in receptions (64).
“We tossed all the time, so obviously that built our relationship in just going out, running routes and tossing to each other,” Mayer said. “He’s been nothing but a great addition to this team. He’s taken on his role to this team for his leadership. When he’s out there, he’s not panicking and playing to the way he knows he can play. That’s something that this team likes to see out of our quarterback.”
Though Coan’s Notre Dame career will end Saturday, Rees believes his football career will not end there.
“He’s going to make a roster next year in the NFL. I have no doubt about it,” Rees said. “We as a program are very fortunate to have him come through. I said it a couple weeks ago: our biggest regret is that we only get one year with him. He represents what Notre Dame’s about. He represents our room in as positive of a way as possible.”
The future for Kevin Austin Jr.
Notre Dame senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. indicated Tuesday he has yet to make a decision on whether he will return next season or take a shot at the NFL.
“I’m going to take my time and figure out what I’m going to do and focus on the game,” Austin said.
If Austin does return for a fifth season, he’d have the chance to play more with current freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. The public perception of Buchner has been skewed a bit by his role in Notre Dame’s offense this season.
Because the Irish needed help in the running game, Buchner has been asked to use his legs more than his right arm. While playing in 10 games, Buchner rushed 46 times for 336 yards and three touchdowns and completed 21 of his 35 passes for 298 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
But the future is bright for Buchner, a former four-star recruit from San Diego. Just ask Austin.
“I get that sometimes it seems that he’s very run heavy when he goes in the game,” Austin said. “But at the end of day when he throws in the game, he has confidence that he can make the throw. He makes throws in practice that I am shocked about, so I know that he can do it in the game.”
Chris Tyree feels healthy
Notre Dame may need sophomore running back Chris Tyree to have his best performance of the season in order to win the Fiesta Bowl. The year hasn’t gone as planned for Tyree thanks in large part to a turf toe injury he suffered mid-season.
Tyree’s best moments of the season came prior to the injury with a 55-yard touchdown reception against Toledo and a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown which propelled the Irish to a victory over Wisconsin.
Tyree started to look more like himself late in the season with his best rushing performance coming in the regular season finale at Stanford with five carries for 44 yards. That game alone accounted for more than one-fifth of his season total of 204 rushing yards.
He’s ready to keep the momentum going in the absence of fellow running back Kyren Williams, who opted out of the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft.
“Honestly, I don’t think I would wish turf toe on my worst enemy,” Tyree said. “It was a really tough injury for me. Working with (head football athletic trainer) Rob (Hunt), working with the training staff and getting back healthy was my main goal. That’s where I’m at right now. I feel really good.”
Next man up for Josh Lugg
News broke Monday that Notre Dame starting right tackle Josh Lugg wouldn’t play in the Fiesta Bowl due to a knee injury that he suffered in practice earlier this month. With Lugg out to recover from a meniscus surgery, freshman Blake Fisher, who suffered a meniscus injury of his own in the season opener at Florida State, will step back into the starting lineup.
Losing the experience of Lugg, who could still return next season for a sixth season, will be a blow for the Irish offensive line. But senior captain Jarrett Patterson, the starting center, has confidence in Fisher’s ability to step in for Lugg.
“It’s tough. Josh is a great teammate on and off the field,” Patterson said. “Honestly, he could be considered a captain this year with the leadership he’s done. He’s an outstanding player. We’re going to miss him and his presence on the field, but Blake will be ready.
“We saw it. You guys saw it during fall camp and Florida State. He’ll be good to go. He's ready to dominate. The biggest thing I told Blake is he has to communicate out there. It’s been a while since he’s played, but he’s been doing a great job in practice and his preparation. He’ll be ready.”
Freeman’s respect for Oklahoma State’s defense
Head coach Marcus Freeman said he tried to watch as much film of Oklahoma State’s stout defense while on Notre Dame’s flight from South Bend to Phoenix. Much more of his focus in previous weeks has been studying Oklahoma State’s offense as the former Irish defensive coordinator.
He understands that Notre Dame’s offense will have its hands full against a Cowboys team that ranks among the top 15 in the FBS in total defense (No. 3), rushing defense (5), scoring defense (8) and passing efficiency defense (14).
“I'm so impressed with how hard they play from every position but especially their front four,” Freeman said. “They play extremely hard. They are relentless and they tackle and they pursue the ball well. It's going to be a huge challenge and the challenge is not going to be schematically. It's going to be to match their intensity and the physicality they play with.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.