Notre Dame does not have a quarterback controversy – coach Brian Kelly made that clear after his team's 41-13 win over Wisconsin on Saturday.
What it does have, however, are quarterback questions. As of Tuesday, it remained unclear who will start at the position in Week 5 against No. 7 Cincinnati, likely the biggest game remaining on the schedule.
The situation looks like this: Jack Coan is the starter if he's healthy. It's unclear whether he will be, however, after the Wisconsin transfer suffered a soft-tissue injury to his leg against the Badgers on one of the five sacks he took. Notre Dame did not practice on the field Monday when Kelly updated the quarterback situation, so he wasn't able to provide much of an update on Coan's condition. The grad transfer was reportedly on the field Tuesday, but it's unclear how much he practiced and we probably won't know more until Kelly's late-week press conference Thursday.
If Coan can't start, redshirt freshman Drew Pyne will get the nod against Cincinnati. Pyne was pretty good in relief of Coan on Saturday, going 6 for 8 for 81 yards and a touchdown, though he was also strip-sacked, leading to a go-ahead field goal for the Badgers. From everything we've heard, Pyne has the confidence of the locker room if Coan can't play.
The one aspect of the quarterback situation that appears certain is that Tyler Buchner will play against Cincinnati. Buchner was a revelation against Toledo in Week 2, breaking off several big runs and then using the threat of that rushing ability to hit Chris Tyree with a short pass that turned into a 55-yard touchdown. Buchner, a true freshman, has missed most of the last two games with a hamstring injury and was not available Saturday when Coan went out. But Kelly said Buchner was feeling "really good" Sunday and will get some snaps no matter whom the starter is.
"If (Coan) looks good, he'll be our starter and Tyler Buchner will play, like we had before we went into (the Wisconsin game)," Kelly said. "If (Coan) can't (play), then Drew is ready to go and it appears that Tyler is going to be in pretty good shape to play for us. So, it's a two quarterback situation, it just depends on what two from that standpoint."
Got all that?
Even if Coan ends up close to 100% health this week and plays against the Bearcats, the question of who should be the quarterback going forward is going to be an open one, even if Kelly keeps insisting its closed. Since a very good first outing against Florida State, Coan has struggled in three straight games, getting sacked a dozen times and completing exactly 50% of his passes in the last two. He's holding the ball a little bit too long and behind an offensive line that hasn't been particularly good to begin with, that's a significant problem. It doesn't help that, when the rush comes, Coan has not been able to move in the pocket as well as one would like, despite possessing decent athleticism.
"What's most important is the ball has got to come out on time," Kelly said. "So, (the quarterbacks) can't hold on to the football. You've got to be decisive. For me, within this offensive structure, the ball has to come out on time.
"The offensive line is under scrutiny right now and look, they have to play better. But not all that is on the offensive line. The ball has got to come out on time and there are certain situations where the ball needed to get out in a timely fashion and it didn't."
Kelly admitted it's been difficult for Coan, who played in a system at Wisconsin where he was mostly taking snaps from under center, to adjust to the Notre Dame offense that is almost exclusively shotgun formations. Getting more comfortable in the shotgun should help him get the ball out quicker, but at this point the season is a third over and after an entire offseason and fall practice to work on it, it's up in the air whether he'll be completely comfortable working from the shotgun at all this season.
"(Under center) is where he was (at Wisconsin)," Kelly said. "That's how he took all of his snaps. He's really made incredible progress. We're really pleased. He has thrown nine touchdown passes. ... There's still work to be done there and he would admit it as well, but there is a bit of a transition that he's going through. We've had to shorten his drop. He's used to taking a hitch step. He wasn't brought up in a shotgun offense."
But where does that leave Notre Dame? In his limited work Saturday, Pyne did do a fairly good job of getting the ball out quickly and when the line did break down, he showed an ability to escape pressure and keep his eyes down the field or find some running room. Of course, he did also get hit a couple of times, including the strip-sack from his blind side, but it's at least possible that Pyne's specific skillset might fit better with this particular offensive line.
"He's pretty good at it," Kelly said of Pyne's ability to get the ball out quickly. "He's had to be good at it. That's how he was successful. When when you recruit somebody that's standing on the yellow pages to be 6-1, you know what I mean, you've got to see it and the ball's got to come out, and he's really good at that stuff. We knew what we had with him, that he was going to be a guy that saw it, got it out, moved through his progressions, kind of what he did on Saturday."
The Irish clearly trust Pyne to step in for Coan if the latter is injured Saturday, but it's also possible that Pyne is simply the better option going forward behind a leaky front. The bottom line is the Irish have three quarterbacks with significantly differing skillsets and it could be a season-long project for Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to maximize the abilities of all three and put them all in the best positions to succeed.