The future is now for Notre Dame at quarterback.
Veteran Jack Coan remains the starter – and deservedly so after leading the No. 6 Irish to four wins in a row – but true freshman Tyler Buchner has blossomed into a do-it-all problem for defenses, one that will be increasingly difficult to keep on the sideline in the season's final weeks, starting with today's matchup against Georgia Tech (3-7) .
Heading into Notre Dame's game with Virginia last Saturday night, coach Brian Kelly warned that the kid gloves attached to Buchner were ready to come off.
“I think he's been in a box, in a sense where we've limited him in some capacity,” Kelly said. “We'll continue to expand (his role) a little bit more than what we've had because we've seen really consistent performances.”
Kelly was true to his word, giving Buchner a variety of plays to execute in Notre Dame's 28-3 win over the Cavaliers. The quarterback rewarded Kelly's faith with a poised performance, going 3 for 4 for 42 yards and adding 10 rushing yards on three carries.
The Irish ran a reverse with Buchner at quarterback and the threat of the freshman running the ball froze the Virginia defense to the point that wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. had a clear lane to the end zone for a long touchdown going the opposite direction. The play was called back because of a block in the back well downfield, but it was still an example of Buchner's ability to influence the run game even when he does not keep the ball.
Buchner's playing time has grown along with his knowledge of the playbook. Kelly praised the La Jolla, California, native's ability to retain information and that ability has been key to overcoming a steep learning curve stemming from Buchner's lack of experience even relative to other freshmen: his senior season of high school football was canceled because of the pandemic.
“With the playbook, my mom wanted me to do well and I wanted to do well, so I'd have her test me on the plays,” said Buchner, who is 8 for 9 for 94 yards and a touchdown through the air in his last four games. “That definitely helped a lot and I certainly learned a lot more when I got (to South Bend) and I'm still learning every day. You can always go into more depth and detail.”
Even negative plays are learning experiences. Against Virginia, he missed a mesh point with running back Logan Diggs on a read-option and the resulting fumble ended a potential scoring drive. He came to the sideline ready to ingest some constructive criticism.
“When he came off, his reaction and our conversation and how he took that are really good,” Kelly said. “Because we want to get him back in there and see how he leads that next drive. You can't duplicate that in practice.
“All those things are building towards his development. Those are moments that allow us to really see what he's about and we like the things that we see about him.”
With Coan likely to move on after the season, Notre Dame will be in need of a starting quarterback heading into the 2022 campaign. There's no guarantee Buchner will take the reins, but he seems to be in Kelly's plans.
“I think you saw a little bit of that Saturday night,” the 12th-year Irish coach said. “There was a little bit more in his package that would give you a glimpse as to what it would look like next year.”
Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
When: 2:30 p.m. today
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Records: No. 6 Notre Dame (9-1), Georgia Tech (3-7)
Getting healthy: Notre Dame was missing key players, including captains Drew White and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, in last week's win over Virginia because of the flu that has swept through the team's facility. Coach Brian Kelly said the team has continued to struggle with illness this week, with a number of players missing Tuesday's practice. The Irish got a large group of players back Wednesday. 23.
Dual threat: For the second straight week, Notre Dame must prepare for multiple quarterbacks. Georgia Tech signal-caller Jeff Sims is a dynamic player with more than 1,400 passing yards and nearly 400 rushing yards (5.3 per carry) this season. He missed last week's 41-30 loss to Boston College with a foot injury and he had a boot on the foot on the sideline. It's unclear whether he'll be able to play and if he can't go, the Irish will have to be ready to face redshirt sophomore Jordan Yates, who had a passing and rushing touchdown against the Eagles. Kelly praised Yates' creativity on the run and said the Irish would have to keep him in the pocket.
Still alive: Notre Dame's College Football Playoff hopes have increased in recent weeks. The Irish need some help, but their remaining schedule is, on paper at least, one of the easiest of any of the teams in the hunt. Beating Georgia Tech this afternoon and 3-7 Stanford in a week would put Notre Dame in the conversation as the CFP committee makes it picks. A loss in either of those games would send the Irish tumbling out of contention. "(Georgia Tech) is a very dangerous team," Notre Dame defensive tackle Kurt Hinish said. "This year of college football has been so weird, there's been so many teams getting knocked off. ... Anything can happen."
Prediction: No. 6 Notre Dame 29, Georgia Tech 13
- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette firstname.lastname@example.org