Tyler Buchner a 'full go' for Notre Dame, headed for TaxSlayer Gator Bowl opposite South Carolina

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman points to his players during the Notre Dame vs. University of Nevada NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Marcus Freeman knows his trademark transparency might have expedited quarterback Drew Pyne’s decision to enter the transfer portal even before No. 21 Notre Dame learned it would face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl.

However, the first-year coach, speaking on a bowl-sponsored teleconference Sunday evening, sounded at peace with his process and a likely return to season-opening starter Tyler Buchner against the 19th-ranked Gamecocks (8-4) on Dec. 30 in Jacksonville, Fla.

“I always want to be upfront and honest, and I was with Drew and told him that we would possibly look at taking a transfer quarterback,” Freeman said. “I did not want him to leave, but he made the decision to enter the portal, and I definitely respect his decision.”

Buchner hasn’t played in nearly three months, dating to an AC sprain in his left (non-throwing) shoulder suffered late in the Sept. 10 loss to Marshall, but the sophomore quarterback is well ahead of schedule in a rehab process that originally pegged his return for mid-January.

Freeman pronounced Buchner as “full go” after he participated in both practices last week. Freshman Steve Angeli also could see his first meaningful action after taking just seven snaps and attempting zero passes during the regular season.

Walk-on quarterback Ron Powlus III also is in the mix.

“We still have three quarterbacks on the roster,” Freeman said. “All have been practicing and (you) could see any of the three play. They’ll all be ready to play.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) during the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Freeman made it clear there were no hard feelings toward Pyne, who still has three years of eligibility after going 8-2 as the starter and ranking 21st nationally in passing efficiency.

“Drew was tremendous,” Freeman said. “You hate to see him leave and enter the portal. As I told him in our meeting, what he’s done for our program, the ability for him to step in, he did a tremendous job.”

Freeman said he had similar conversations with “many of the other players” facing job competition on an Irish roster that is looking for transfer help at key positions. Monday marks the opening of the 45-day winter transfer portal window with another 15-day window set to open May 1.

 “I’m always looking for ways to enhance our roster,” Freeman said.

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Decisions coming soon for Michael Mayer, Isaiah Foskey

Foremost among those weighing their short-term options are record-setting captains Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey.

The highly rated 2023 NFL Draft prospects are widely viewed as longshots to suit up for the Gator Bowl, but Freeman didn’t want to rush them into a decision.

“I told both of those guys to just take a couple days to really think about what they want to do for their future, and we will discuss it sometime this week —probably early this week,” Freeman said.

Starting cornerback Cam Hart, scheduled for surgery on his left shoulder, will miss the bowl game after his absence was felt heavily in the 38-27 loss at USC that closed the regular season. Hart and long snapper Michael Vinson recently announced their plans to return for another season in 2023.

Freeman said the staff hasn’t set a “firm deadline” for other players still deliberating, but decisions that come sooner than later would be best for all parties.

“The portal opens on Monday, so we need to have an idea of what the future plans are for certain guys,” Freeman said. “For our guys that are deciding if they’re going to play or opt out for the NFL Draft, they understand the sooner the better. We just got done playing a 12-game season. Take a week, talk amongst the people they trust: their coaches, their families and probably be ready to make a decision here Monday (or) early this week.”

Rare appointments for Irish

This will be Notre Dame’s first Gator Bowl appearance in two decades, dating to Tyrone Willingham’s first season as coach. The 11th-ranked Irish lost 28-6 to No. 17 N.C. State and future NFL quarterback Philip Rivers on New Year’s Day 2003.

Kickoff on Dec. 30 at TIAA Bank Field, home of the NFL’s Jaguars, will be at 3:30 p.m. ESPN has the broadcast.

Notre Dame also played in the Gator Bowl after Bob Davie’s second season in 1998, losing 35-28 to No. 12 Georgia Tech, and after Dan Devine’s second season in 1976, beating No. 20 Penn State 20-9. That set the stage for Devine's only national championship in 1977.

Notre Dame has won three of its four all-time meetings with South Carolina in a series that dates to 1976, but the Gamecocks prevailed in the most recent meeting, 36-32, in October 1984.   

The Gamecocks overcame a 1-2 start under second-year coach Shane Beamer and closed their regular season with back-to-back home upsets of top-10 foes Tennessee (63-38) and Clemson (31-30). The Irish blocked seven punts this season while the Gamecocks blocked five.  

Freeman, who lost to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day in his Irish coaching debut, was unable to extend Notre Dame’s streak of five-straight 10-win seasons. However, he still could join predecessor Brian Kelly in at least one first-year distinction as the only the Notre Dame coaches to cap their first full seasons with a bowl victory.

Kelly, who will lead No. 17 LSU (9-4) against unranked Purdue in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 2, finished an 8-5 debut season in 2010 with a 33-17 win over Miami in the Sun Bowl, held in El Paso, Texas.

The ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2 had reportedly become a possibility for Notre Dame, but that was only if Ohio State was left out of the College Football Playoff and landed in the Orange Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl. USC’s blowout loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game on Friday night stopped those dominos from tumbling.

A first-ever trip to the Dec. 28 Holiday Bowl at San Diego’s Petco Park loomed as a late possibility for Notre Dame and Buchner, a product of nearby La Jolla, Calif., but unranked North Carolina – which fell 45-32 to the Irish on Sept. 24 -- ended up getting the nod opposite No. 15 Oregon with help from the ACC office.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

Transfer turnabout:Transfer turnabout: Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne enters the portal