With its all-time winningest quarterback headed to the NFL, Notre Dame lacked any starting experience behind center moving into 2021 until former Wisconsin passer Jack Coan changed that Monday evening.
The graduate transfer started 18 games between 2018 and 2019 before a broken foot cost him the 2020 season. He led the Badgers to a 10-4 appearance in the Rose Bowl in 2019, completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Forced to the sideline in 2020’s preseason, Coan could do nothing but watch as sophomore Graham Mertz rose to the occasion.
Coan has one year of eligibility remaining, possibly a needed one for the Irish. Describing him as a “stopgap” is as diminutive as referring to any quarterback as a “game manager” — sometimes a fact would go unfulfilled if not for a particular player — but that does not change the reality of Coan likely becoming a one-year starter sandwiched between a pair of prolific Notre Dame passers.
The former four-star recruit now joins a quarterback room with four career collegiate completions within it, including freshman Drew Pyne’s seven-yarder in Friday’s Rose Bowl loss, momentarily filling in when Ian Book took a rough hit.
Book’s three years of success as a starter is the primary reason the Irish quarterbacks had proven so little to date. Leading Notre Dame to two Playoff appearances kept stakes too high for much reserves work. When he opted to return for a fifth season in 2020, it spurred Phil Jurkovec to transfer to Boston College, leaving only Pyne and sophomore Brendon Clark to back up Book.
A knee Clark injured in high school became “cranky” this season, to use Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s phrasing, pushing Pyne into the No. 2 role as the season progressed. He appeared in four games this season, completing two of three passes for 12 yards.
Clearly, Coan represents experience.
He raises the floor on Notre Dame’s 2021, a floor that should not be dismissed as low in reactionary form based on the 31-14 loss on New Year’s Day or the influx of outgoing transfers this week. Even with first-team All-American Aaron Banks heading to the NFL, the Irish return three offensive linemen with notable experience in Jarrett Patterson (likely the 2021 left tackle), Zeke Correll (center) and Josh Lugg (right tackle). They will have a dynamic running back duo and at least one of the country’s best tight ends.
While that is not an offensive package that will compete with the best in the country, it is one that should win the bulk of Notre Dame’s games, provided it has quality quarterback play.
Pyne and Clark represent significant question marks in that regard, whereas Coan is a bit more of a known commodity.
Incoming early-enrollee Tyler Buchner may still represent the highest ceiling, but he has not taken a competitive snap in 13 months due to California forgoing the high school fall football season during the pandemic. Hinging the 2021 season on a freshman nearly two years removed from game action would be a poor strategy for Notre Dame.
Ironically enough, Coan committed to the Irish once before … as a lacrosse player early in his high school career. Now he arrives at Notre Dame with 23 career touchdowns. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Coan is more of a pocket quarterback than Book, the version of passer commonly associated with the term “pro-style” even as the actual pro-style has gotten further and further away from that dropback approach.
In 2019, Coan averaged 8.04 yards per attempt, quite comparable to Book’s 8.02 in 2020.
The Irish are scheduled to face Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 25.