SOUTH BEND – Let the quarterback speculation begin at Notre Dame.
On the same day that Ian Book, the winningest quarterback in Irish history, was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft, the battle to become his successor at Notre Dame began in earnest.
Presumed combatants for the starting role – Jack Coan, a transfer from Wisconsin, and Drew Pyne – got most of the snaps in the first half of the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, and both had their moments. In the second half, however, true freshman Tyler Buchner led the only two touchdown drives of the game and showed off the poise and athleticism that made him a five-star recruit in the 2021 class.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had previously characterized the battle as mostly a two-man race between Coan and Pyne, but he emphasized Saturday that the best player will play in the fall.
“(Quarterback) it is going to be scrutinized, and it should be,” Kelly said. “This is Notre Dame. … It's our job to put the best player out there. And, if it's Pyne, if it's Buchner, if it's Coan, that's what we need to do. So, we've got to find a way to develop the quarterback at Notre Dame to be ready to play.”
The Blue team won the intrasquad scrimmage 17-3 in a matchup that favored the defenses, which Kelly admitted are ahead of the offenses at this point in the offseason. The annual event – the 2020 version was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic – marks the end of Notre Dame's spring practice and was attended by 6,195 fans, mostly students and families of players.
As the Irish break for summer workouts (during which coaches are prohibited from directing “football-specific” activities) before officially reconvening in the fall, Kelly said he sees the outline of what the team will look like for the 2021 campaign, but the pieces are not fully in place yet.
“The way that I see things right now is that we're a good team,” the 12th-year coach said. “And good teams are not good enough. We want to be a great team. Good teams don't win a national championship. We need to be a great team. And so, how do we get from good to great? That's where we are in this process. We can put enough good players out there to have a good football team. But nobody around here is interested in good. We want to be great.”
Each of the three quarterbacks looked great at points in the game. Coan threw a 32-yard back-shoulder dart to Joe Wilkins Jr. on the first play of the game; in the second quarter, Pyne stood in against the rush as he put a long throw to Braden Lenzy on the money to the opposite sideline; in the third period, Buchner pulled the ball down on a read-option and wiggled his way into the end zone from seven yards out for the game's first touchdown.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees made sure to target the team's veteran receivers most often and that meant Lawrence Keys III, Lenzy and Avery Davis combined to have 27 passes thrown in their direction. Keys led the way with five catches for 115 yards.
The defense had its moments, as well, picking off Coan and Pyne once each as linebacker Shayne Simon stepped in front of an out route from Coan and freshman safety Justin Walters undercut a deep ball from Pyne. The Irish defensive front also clearly outmuscled the offensive line, which lost four starters and three NFL draft picks from last season's unit.
“The defense is free,” Simon said of the new defensive scheme under coordinator Marcus Freeman, who took over when former coordinator Clark Lea got the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. “It has freedom to it. It's not as gap-oriented, gap-sound. It allows us to have freedom, go play, be fast and make plays.”
Among the Irish who sat out with injuries were All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, Freshman All-American tight end Michael Mayer and starting linebacker Drew White. All are expected to be ready for the start of fall camp.