Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s quarterbacks, a competition between Wimbush and Book … and Davis?

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Notre Dame will hold a quarterback competition this spring. That much is clear, and necessary. Given it is only spring practice, though, the odds are extremely slim any result comes from the competition before August.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Brandon Wimbush, rising junior Ian Book and rising sophomore Avery Davis.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec.

Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s playmaking abilities or ease in creating with his legs have never been points of concern, but if he does not improve as a passer, he could find himself leading the second-unit by the end of this spring. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Come Monday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly may indicate it is a three-man spring competition, including Davis, but it is more likely Wimbush and Book get the focus. The depth chart possibilities are rather obvious: One will be the starter and the other will be his backup.

For these concerns, Jurkovec is not factored in much. This is a spring outlook, after all, and he will not join the mix until the summer. Even then, it will remain unlikely a freshman takes the reins by the start of September.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Obviously the QB battle will be the most-watched story of the offseason. Much of the narrative seems to focus on Wimbush, Book and Jurkovec. Where does Avery Davis stand? Can he force his way into the conversation? — Taylor G.

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Kelly praised Davis during bowl preparations, citing his multi-faceted attack making life difficult for the defense.

“He’s efficient with the football, [a] very strong runner,” Kelly said in mid-December. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

If willing to open the quarterback spot up to a competition, even if expecting it to be open to only Book and possibly to Jurkovec, then Kelly has already opened the door for Davis. That first decision was the more difficult one to reach. It mandates change, and as we all know, change is hard. If change is on the table, Davis is a possibility, just not as likely a one as Book considering Davis didn’t get to offer Citrus Bowl heroics.

Avery Davis (rivals.com)

It seems that most people have forgotten about Avery Davis. In most of the articles I’ve read, everyone talks about Wimbush, Book or Jurkovec, but nowhere has there been mention of Davis potentially pushing for the starting job. I seem to remember hearing or reading somewhere that he was tearing it up while running the scout team, which I realize doesn’t mean much, but he received some high praise from coach Kelly during the season. Considering he now as a year in [offensive coordinator] Chip Long’s system under his belt, why do you think he’s been the forgotten one in this situation and do you think he has a realistic shot to push for the starting job? — Ron M in South Bend, Ind.

Davis has been forgotten because it has been so long since he was seen in a competitive environment. Wimbush dazzled throughout September and October. Book proved himself more than competent at North Carolina and in the Citrus Bowl. Even Jurkovec spent the fall putting up gaudy numbers in the WPIAL.

Davis was busy challenging Notre Dame’s starting defense, learning opponents’ offensive schemes and remaining a practical fourth on the depth chart behind former walk-on Montgomery VanGorder due to the goal of eligibility preservation.

“When you’re a quarterback and you have to redshirt, it’s hard for a lot of guys, because when you’re used to being the guy and you have to sit him down for a little bit, it’s tough,” Irish quarterbacks coach Tom Rees said Feb. 7. “He did a great job mentally getting himself reading for those practices in the winter. He was able to go out there and execute the offense and move the team and play at a high level.”

Could that become a contributing role in 2018? It is not impossible, but it seems unlikely. Davis was never considered as a challenge to Book in 2017. If he was, that season on the sidelines would not have been as assured from the outset as it was. Much like outstanding defensive linemen, a quarterback challenging for a spot in the two-deep from the first day of his freshman year is not likely to stay in college for five years anyway, so preserving a year of eligibility is a pointless cause. A quarterback behind two others, however, might end up needing that fifth year.

Davis does some things well: He is another athletic option, possibly the mid-point between Wimbush’s big-play running ability and Book’s knack for getting a first down with his legs when available. Nonetheless, Davis still needs to develop, and unless that occurs much quicker than expected, his role in 2018 will likely be a minimal one.

“When you watch him work out this winter, he’s taking another step in his comfort level,” Rees said. “… I’m really excited to see what he can do when he’s given more reps. I think he does a great job of moving the offense. He understands, here’s my easy throw, I’m going to take it and we’re going to get a completion and keep going. He has a great understanding of how to run the show.

“Now it’s let’s develop these other characteristics. Let’s develop these other traits, this deeper understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

In an effort to get the best athletes on the field, do you start Book, move Wimbush to some sort of jack-of-all-trades offensive player and let Davis be the backup? — Philip Q.

No.

Let’s rephrase the question: In an effort to get the best athletes on the field, do you move the only quarterback with experience to a role he has never played before, risk alienating him as a senior, not to mention more of the locker room, and hand the offense to two players with almost no experience and certainly lower ceilings?

Perhaps that is being dramatic, but it is an attempt to underscore the logical issues with the thought experiment. Arguing to move Wimbush to running back or receiver is something of a lazy approach. He has never played either position. Book has hardly played, and in his time has thrown an interception once every 18.75 attempts. Context: Wimbush threw an interception once every 45.83 attempts last season.

Frustration with Wimbush’s accuracy issues and overall progression as a passer is well-founded, but there has been little evidence Book is a significantly option in those regards. Even in yards per attempt, Book averaged 6.09 yards while Wimbush averaged 6.8 yards.

The only passing statistic in which Book outshines Wimbush is in completion percentage, 61.3 percent compared to 49.5 percent, but a sample size asterisk must be included with that note, as Book attempted only 75 passes last year, a full 200 fewer than Wimbush.

Again, Wimbush needs to improve as a passer, but moving him to a skill position away from center does not necessarily improve Notre Dame’s passing game. Book is not a proven commodity.

Thus, the risk of Wimbush not fitting at running back or receiver, of Wimbush becoming upset over the move, and/or of Book’s inexperience showing itself makes the concept of such a positional move an extremely flawed one.

One more note:
Again, today’s thinking does not much include Jurkovec. This space will likely maintain skepticism a freshman will take the reins on day one of Kelly’s ninth season, but if both Wimbush and Book fail to complete 50 percent of their passes in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, perhaps that thinking will change.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Wimbush: 1,870 yards on 136-for-275 passing with 16 touchdowns; 944 yards on 112 rushes with 14 touchdowns (sacks adjusted).
Book: 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing with four touchdowns; 207 yards on 37 rushes.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Phil Jurkovec

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength
Receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson
Defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties
Offensive line, a search for a fifth starter

As always, further reader questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

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Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.