Notre Dame knew what it had at quarterback entering 2020. The position could not have been more stable or clear of competition.
There is unlikely to be any competition entering the 2021 season, but that does not mean the Irish have much of an idea of what they have. With a graduate transfer who missed 2020 due to a foot injury, the former No. 2 who fell down the depth chart thanks to a “cranky” knee and an early-enrolled freshman who has not taken a competitive snap since the fall of 2019, Notre Dame has so many unknowns it is almost easy to forget about rising sophomore Drew Pyne, who finished 2020 as the primary Irish backup, even completing a pass in the Rose Bowl when the game was still theoretically in reach.
Somewhere in that mess of descriptors and disclaimers, Notre Dame offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees will need to find his best option, widely presumed to be the elder statesman of the group.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Not much more needs to be said about Ian Book. He won more games as the starting Irish quarterback than anyone else in history, he led a 16-game winning streak and Notre Dame to two Playoff berths. A year ago, he was on a six-game winning streak with a Playoff berth and two bowl wins in hand. There was no backup in the conversation, particularly once Phil Jurkovec transferred to Boston College.
There are situations where the lack of a quarterback competition speaks poorly of the other options and situations where it speaks of the quality of the starter. The last few years in South Bend have been the latter, though they created a situation where the other options are now so unknown.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Enter Jack Coan, former Wisconsin starter.
“It’s huge, just having a guy that’s played in big games, played in the Rose Bowl, played in the Big 10 championship, led a team to those situations,” Rees said last month. “Having a guy that’s been around high-level college football.
“You look at the room right now and we’re young and we’re even younger in terms of the playing experience. The new age of quarterback play where guys are leaving every year and all of that, you need to add veterans to your room, and you need to add the right ones, more importantly.”
Rees’s comments feed into the belief that Coan has the starting position locked up, as does the common sense of a Power Five quarterback transferring to a Power Five school with only one year of eligibility remaining; he does not do so if not both assured he will and expecting to start. But beyond those intangibles, Coan has started 11 more games (18 total) than the other four Irish quarterbacks have attempted collegiate passes (7 combined).
That experience differential was not lost on Brendon Clark (rising junior, knee issues in 2020 tracing to a high school injury), Drew Pyne (rising sophomore, encouraging backup in 2020), Tyler Buchner (early-enrolled freshman, highly-touted recruit) or Ron Powlus III (incoming freshman, the name says it all). They understood that shortcoming even before Notre Dame had reeled in Coan.
“The exciting thing for me was when I had the conversation with the other quarterbacks that we are going to be bringing in a grad transfer, to a man they were all excited about the opportunity to bring in a veteran that can help improve them, that can help make them better, that can help add competition to the room,” Rees said. “The short time I’ve been around Jack and the conversations we had leading up to now, he is an extremely mature young man. He is one that has won a lot of football games in a very competitive conference.”
That track record, throwing for more than 2,700 yards with 18 touchdowns compared to only five interceptions, the knowledge gained from starting against Michigan and Ohio State, the perspective of entering a fifth year of college football should all better the rest of the young and inexperienced quarterbacks room. In that respect, Coan serves as a continuation of Book.
“It’s going to be invaluable to those younger players to see how [Coan] works, to see how he prepares, to see how he studies, to see his leadership qualities shine through,” Rees said. “Because the best way to learn is through example and I think that is going to continue the great veteran presence that we’ve had here in the past. He’ll continue to be a good sounding board and a good mentor to some of those younger guys.”
If that is the only way Coan continues Book’s work, that will still be net-value added for Notre Dame.
And that is where Rees would remind Irish fans how “spoiled” they were by Book.
Coan arrives a steady option, one who should raise Notre Dame’s 2021 floor, but he will not raise the ceiling like Book often did.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
In that respect, every glimpse of Buchner will serve as headline fodder this year. If he truly outplays Coan in preseason practice, Buchner could become the Irish quarterback as a freshman, but that seems extremely unlikely, in part because Coan has such experience and Buchner hasn’t taken a real snap in 17 months and counting, in part because Coan transferred to Notre Dame for a reason, and in part because the best 18-year-old still falls short of a tested 23-year-old in many very real ways.
But Coan has only one year of eligibility remaining. Buchner should be contemplating high school civics courses. The time will come for “will be” to turn into “is.”