Notre Dame will name a starting quarterback internally this week, but will not release the information publicly before it takes on Virginia Tech on Saturday, coach Brian Kelly said Monday.
"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," Kelly said. "We just haven't gotten a chance to talk to that individual yet. We know exactly who it is."
This is different from Kelly's position following 14th-ranked Notre Dame's win over Wisconsin on Sept. 25, after which the coach said that Jack Coan "no question" remained the starter. In the interim, Coan threw a costly red-zone interception in a loss to Cincinnati and was pulled with Notre Dame trailing 17-0 at halftime.
Redshirt freshman Drew Pyne played in Coan's place in the second half against the Bearcats and led a pair of touchdown drives, but went just 9-for-22 passing. The Irish are likely choosing between Pyne and Coan as the starter, with package quarterback Tyler Buchner likely to get some snaps in specialty situations no matter who starts.
Kelly said his calculation in choosing a starter was fairly straightforward:
"At the end of the day, who gives you the best chance to win," Kelly said. "This is still about winning football games. We feel like we've got a team that can win the rest of their games and we want to be able to put the quarterback out there that we believe gives us the chance to do that.
"Nobody was perfect, as we know, at the quarterback position. There were some mistakes made by all three."
With Kelly moving off his position that Coan is definitely the starter, it seems relatively likely to me that Pyne will get the nod against the Hokies. That's a difficult position for a redshirt freshman to find himself: making his first career start at Lane Stadium, one of the more hostile environments in the country. Pyne showed poise in stepping in for Coan against Wisconsin and Cincinnati and there weren't any obvious jitters, but the question would be whether that will change in a true road game where he has several days to think about being QB1.
Of course, no matter whether it's Coan or Pyne at quarterback, the Irish will still have a significant problem along the offensive line. The front was somewhat better in the second half against Cincinnati and Pyne's ability to move in the pocket would help, but the line still needs to be better, if only to give the Irish some semblance of a run game.
Kelly said criticism of offensive line coach Jeff Quinn is "totally unfair."
"Look, everybody has a job to do, everybody takes this extremely serious, it's their livelihood, and all of my coaches, whether a position group is not performing up to their level, they are examining everything about that," Kelly said. "We put in 77 hours last week, so there's no stone unturned and everybody's doing everything they can to get the best out of their unit.
"As I told our guys, we are responsible for putting the best guys on the field and getting the most out of them. So, if we've got to be smarter and we've got to be able to put them in better positions, then so be it. That's what we have to do. A lot of this is about making sure that we put our players in the best position to succeed and that we care about our players and we continue to develop them."
Five games into the season, Notre Dame is still trying to settle on the five-man rotation on the line that works best. Left tackle has been the trickiest position, with starter Blake Fisher and backup Michael Carmody each missing significant time with injuries. Fisher, a highly-touted true freshman, might not be back in the regular season.
Going forward, the Irish will continue to rotate, Carmody, Tosh Baker and Joe Alt at left tackle. Carmody is probably the most polished of the three youngsters, but he's dealing with an ankle injury that has kept him out of most of the last three games and he remains day-to-day this week. Baker, meanwhile, is in the concussion protocol and it's unclear if he'll be available against the Hokies. Kelly said none of the three is a "finished product," but all three bring strengths to the table, though they have also all struggled at different points this season.
"We could probably have a conversation about upside and who's going to be where in the future, but we like all three of them, it's just that it's still a work in progress," the 12th-year coach said.
On the inside, three players will rotate at the two guard spots going forward: Marshall transfer Cain Madden, Zeke Correll and Andrew Kristofic. The first two are the starters and Kristofic will fill in for both of them as the situation dictates. The Irish were hoping that Madden would be a rock at right guard after he was an All-American at Marshall, but that hasn't really happened yet.
In other injury news, tight end Michael Mayer is dealing with a leg (abductor, to be specific) strain and should be able to play this week, though the Irish will be "smart with him," according to Kelly. Mayer made a couple of catches against Cincinnati on which it was obvious he was in some pain as he ran.
Nose tackle Kurt Hinish, who has missed the last two games, should be ready to play this week. Finally, wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., who has four catches for 61 yards and a touchdown this season, has a knee injury and got an MRI on Monday. As of Monday, Kelly wasn't sure if the injury will be long-term. If Wilkins is out for any extended time, true freshmen receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie will be asked to step up. Kelly said the Irish are trying to get both more involved anyway.