Which Notre Dame QB will master the land of four-point plays?
SOUTH BEND – It was no accident that Notre Dame opened August training camp with two straight red zone-heavy practice days.
The Irish did the same thing during spring practice after new defensive coordinator Al Golden made the suggestion in light of his six seasons as an NFL assistant. Working in such tight quarters also helps with the assessment of the quarterback competition between frontrunner Tyler Buchner and less-heralded Drew Pyne.
“Our defense does a great job,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said Saturday. “They make it extremely hard with their package down there for certain things. We have to understand: Do we have a look where we can attack or do we have a look where we have to make the right decision? And down there, that’s critical.”
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Rees speaks of those forays inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line as “four-point plays,” meaning the difference between settling for a field goal and punching it in for a touchdown.
In the former Notre Dame quarterback’s first two seasons as an offensive coordinator, the Irish finished 102nd and tied for 32nd (with UCLA) in red zone efficiency — or scoring touchdowns on those trips.
While three-year starter Ian Book managed a 76.7% TD rate in 2020 and Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan bumped that to 88% last fall, the untested combo of Buchner and Pyne will be asked to continue that upward trend.
In Friday’s open practice, Buchner unofficially went 5 of 13 passing with three touchdowns and one interception during multiple red zone periods. He also scored on a quarterback draw.
Pyne, sharing first-team repetitions with Buchner, went 11 of 17 with seven touchdown passes and just one interception in the scoring zone. Pyne also took a sack and hit Braden Lenzy in the back corner of the end zone on a designed rollout.
Former walk-on Matt Salerno came down with three of those scoring grabs, including two from Pyne.
“That’s kind of the stress,” Rees said. “That’s why I like being down there early in camp because it’s really a challenge on the quarterback. We welcome that and we want to continue to be good down there.”
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Moving an All-America center candidate like Jarrett Patterson to left guard this late in the offseason might seem like a risky decision, but it made perfect sense to the Notre Dame coaching staff.
“We’re extremely pleased,” Rees said. “I could go on for a long time about Jarrett, but it’s been a good transition for him.”
With Patterson coming off March surgery on his left pectoral muscle, junior Zeke Correll made the most of his chance to fill in during spring practice. Redshirt sophomore Andrew Kristofic became the odd man out after replacing Correll at left guard for the final eight games last season.
“Zeke’s made a lot of strides over the last eight months, and we’re all about getting our 11 best on the field together,” Rees said. “We feel extremely confident in the combination of having those guys out there together.”
Pairing a returning captain like Patterson on the left side with sophomore tackle Joe Alt might provide better directional balance to a Notre Dame running game that was notably right-side dominant in 2021. According to PFF College, the Irish ran between right of center and right tackle more than a third more often than they ran behind the left interior.
That 123-92 disparity in attempts led to a 4.92-yard average when running off the right side, including 10 touchdowns and 32 first downs.
When running left between center and tackle, the Irish averaged 4.86 yards and had just six touchdowns and 19 first downs.
Rees, however, downplayed the notion that Notre Dame could switch to a left-hand running team.
“It doesn’t change a whole lot,” he said.
Gi-Bran Payne making sudden impact
Four-star wide receiver Tobias Merriweather hasn’t been the only June arrival to open eyes through two days of August training camp.
Indiana transfer Gi’Bran Payne, a much-needed depth piece in an injury-riddled running backs room, has made a quick impression along with tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden Staes.
“All of them have had a lot of reps the first two days of camp,” Rees said. “We had high expectations for the tight ends. They’ve come in and done a nice job.”
The same goes for Payne. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, the four-star Cincinnati product has a strong lower half but still needs to add some armor in his upper body.
“Gi’Bran has shown that this isn’t anything he can’t handle,” Rees said. “He’s gone in there mentally, been really sharp, made some plays, made a couple good runs. He bounced one (Friday) that scored. He’s going to fit in great.”
Jayden Thomas sits out
A day after drawing raves from Marcus Freeman for his offseason improvement, redshirt freshman wide receiver Jayden Thomas worked on the side during the five open practice periods for what Rees termed precautionary reasons.
Thomas was slowed by turf toe during his final season at Pace Academy in Atlanta, and a reported leg issue kept him from doing more in his first college season. Thomas finished with just 14 snaps, all in the final three games, but he did contribute four catches for 39 yards and excellent downfield blocking in the Blue-Gold Game.
“JT’s done a great job,” Rees said. “He’s got to continue to be dependable and be available. I think he’s made big strides in terms of his development and his commitment to what we’re doing. I’m excited about the things he possesses.”
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.