Following Notre Dame’s loss to Cincinnati, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly remarked that his coaching staff needed to move past its “flavor of the week” management of the quarterback position. However, only one week later, and after experiencing another juggling act at QB, Coach Kelly’s remark might actually be an understatement. Perhaps the flavor of the week might actually just be a necessary double or triple scoop when it comes to the QB’s, as the Irish have needed all available options to continue to emerge victorious each week. All three quarterbacks have contributed to Irish victories, and all three have the ability to play on any given week, despite the fact that no single QB has emerged as “the guy.” This certainly goes against the old mantra of “If you have multiple quarterbacks, you have no quarterback.” However, as the Irish sit at the halfway point of the season, it is truly impressive that they hold a 5-1 record with everything they’ve had to overcome. I think many people would agree that this is very likely the least talented team of the post-2016 “BK Renaissance Era.” Therefore, major props should be handed out to each of the QB’s for finding ways to grind out victories. However, when it comes to the second half of the season, should the coaching staff stick with the balancing act at QB? Or should they choose one QB and ride him out? Let’s examine the pros and cons of each QB so far this season.
Pros – Coan is definitely the most talented pure passer on the roster. Coan has completed 62% of his passes on the year to go along with 10 TD’s. He has certainly cooled off after throwing for 366 yards and 4 TD’s in the season opener at Florida State, but he has also led two incredible game-winning drives for the Irish against Toledo and Virginia Tech. Coan has perhaps the steadiest quarterback composure that ND fans have seen in quite some time. With an almost robotic manner, he doesn’t seem to be fazed by any situation. Overall, Coan has threaded the needle on some really nice throws this year, and I am hoping that OC Tommy Rees can better set him up for success with his choice of play-calling moving forward.
Cons – Coan has stalled the offense at numerous times throughout the past 5 games. Coan is responsible for -85 rushing yards on the season, which speaks volume to his statue-like presence in the pocket. Sacks count as negative rush yards for QBs in college, and ND’s O-Line has certainly not done Coan any favors, but Coan has also shown an inability to recognize the rush and improvise. This without a doubt the main knock on Coan, and perhaps we aren’t even having a conversation like this if Coan were playing with the 2020 version of Notre Dame’s O-Line. Regardless, the situation is what it is, and Coan’s lack of mobility and quick decision-making almost guarantees that he cannot play a full game behind center.
Pros – Everything related to Buchner’s legs. Buchner’s running ability allows Notre Dame to open up their RPO side of the playbook and mount a formidable rushing game every time he’s behind center. Buchner is actually ND’s 2nd leading rusher on the year, with 167 yards (6.4 yards per carry) on the ground to go along with a rushing TD. Buchner has also shown flashes (although few and far between) in the passing game this season, including a brilliant deep ball to Kevin Austin to set up a touchdown in the Virginia Tech game. It also can’t be ignored that the Irish coaches see Buchner as the QB of the future and want to get him experience for the years that lie ahead.
Cons – Buchner’s arm has inspired very little confidence in the brief appearances we’ve seen so far this season. He has completed only 45% of his passes on the year to go along with 3 pretty ugly INT’s (two of which were returned for touchdowns). However, his passing struggles are not truly surprising. Not only is Buchner a true freshman, but he has only played one season of football in the past three years. He missed his sophomore season of high school with a knee injury and his senior season of high school due to COVID-19.
Pros – Pyne is probably Notre Dame’s most complete quarterback right now, which is what makes this situation that much more complex. His appearances this season are somewhat reminiscent of a 2012 version of Tommy Rees – a “relief pitcher” of sorts who can come into the game when your starter can’t quite get his stuff going on a given day. Pyne provided a spark off the bench in both the Wisconsin and Cincinnati games in relief of Jack Coan, where Pyne showed an ability to move outside the pocket with success. Pyne really shined in a limited sample size against Wisconsin, going 6 for 8 passing to go along with a nice TD pass to Kevin Austin. Pyne provided another spark off the bench following a very ineffective Notre Dame first half against Cincinnati, but still only completed 41% of his passes on the day. He has also not thrown an interception on the season.
Cons – Although Pyne may be Notre Dame’s most complete quarterback at the moment, he might have the lowest ceiling of the three QB’s. While Coan’s accuracy and Buchner’s big play potential stand out, Pyne is left behind in some ways as the third option. The coaches must be seeing something in practice that is providing them pause when it comes to Pyne, whether that be pre-snap reads, decision-making, or the ability to stretch the field. Regardless, the coaches should get the benefit of the doubt here – they’ve been evaluating the QB’s on a daily basis since the summer. Pyne’s 5’11’’ frame also doesn’t offer an exciting alternative to Ian Book’s physical limitations that fans came to detest in big games the past couple of years. However, Pyne has big-time moxie and swagger, and I have no doubt that he is someone that can and will help Notre Dame win games for years to come.
So, what should the Irish do at QB moving forward? It’s really anyone’s guess at this point, but I think all signs have pointed to the current Coan/Buchner mix moving forward. I truly believe that the overall value of a Coan/Buchner combo presents the same value as a solo Pyne at QB. It might be a wash in terms of ability to win football games in 2021. However, I have to imagine that the coaches view the Coan/Buchner mix as the higher ROI at the moment, given the desire to win as many games as possible this season while also somewhat looking ahead to the 2022 season opener at Ohio State. It also appears that the running game turned a corner in the Virginia Tech game, as the Irish rushed for 180 yards, which was by far a season high, and was actually more than double their rushing total in the previous two games combined (87 total combined rushing yards against Wisconsin and Cincinnati). It can’t be overstated how important a solid rushing threat is to setting up the pass. With the more permanent insertion of Joe Alt and Andrew Kristofic on the left side of the line, Notre Dame appears to have taken a huge step towards unveiling a truly balanced offensive attack, which should offer Coan an even better chance at success. Additionally, Notre Dame should have a much easier path forward when it comes to opposing defenses. Through Notre Dame’s first 6 games, the Irish played 3 teams ranked in the top 14 in total defense (Wisconsin – #2, Purdue – #13, Cincy – #14). In their final 6 games, the Irish play teams with an average total defensive ranking of 74, with Navy ranking as the highest team in total defense at #59.
Notre Dame’s QB conundrum is also somewhat ironic. Before the season, if you would have told me that Notre Dame is 5-1 at the halfway point with Jack Coan leading the way and Tyler Buchner manning his own RPO package, I would have said that everything has gone according to plan. In reality, it has been pretty ugly at times, and things have certainly not gone according to plan. However, the Irish still sit at 5-1 with a chance as good as any at making a New Year’s 6 Bowl. With that in mind, I’ll offer props to the coaches and all 3 QBs for getting us this far. The team has some glaring weaknesses, but they continue to find ways to win. So, cheers to hoping for 7 more victories, continued progression, and undoubtedly an entertaining second half of the season with ~absolutely no QB controversy whatsoever~.