“One down, hopefully 14 more to go.”
Things would have to take a sudden and drastic turn for Notre Dame not to exceed last year’s total of a spring practice — yes, that is singular — come Tuesday, yet Irish head coach Brian Kelly could not help but acknowledge how truncated the 2020 spring session was as he spoke after Notre Dame’s spring debut on Saturday.
Hopefully, that is the first of many instances in which the Irish and all of us alike note things moving forward more smoothly after the last 13 months.
Aside from that ever-present reality, the biggest difference for Notre Dame between 2020 and 2021 will be behind center. With three-year starter and all-time winningest Irish quarterback Ian Book now readying for the NFL, Notre Dame turns to Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, not that Kelly would commit to that.
“We’re not handing this job to Jack Coan,” Kelly said. “[Sophomore Drew Pyne] has been in the program, so we want him in the spring to be competing for the starting position, and he’ll have an opportunity to do that where they get first-team reps.”
Offsetting Pyne’s year under Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and appearances in four games, including the Rose Bowl, are Coan’s 18 starts in his Badgers career, completing 69.6 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and only five interceptions, including a start in the 2019 Rose Bowl.
Kelly does not expect the spring quarterback competition to exceed that pair. Junior Brendon Clark had knee surgery in December, on the same knee in which he tore the ACL in high school, and Kelly said, “It’s going to be difficult for him to [get in the mix] relative to the timetable.” Early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner missed his senior season due to the coronavirus pandemic and thus has “some development that has to take place there.
“He had a nice practice today,” Kelly gushed. “But he doesn’t know our offense and just the basics is really what he’s trying to feel good about today.”
— Tyler Buchner (@tylerbuchner) March 27, 2021
That leaves Pyne and Coan for now, and Kelly has more incentive than usual to insist there is genuine competition afoot. There is a balance to bringing in a graduate transfer, even when the decision is so obvious as to add a Rose Bowl starter to a position lacking any experience whatsoever. Coan was not around as Notre Dame navigated a pandemic to upset the No. 1 team in the country and reach last year’s Playoff. Those experiences fostered community and trust in the locker room, all of which Pyne was a part of.
“Initially I was, I wouldn’t say skeptical, I was uneasy about it,” fifth-year receiver Avery Davis said. “Usually, the guys they recruit, we go through the process together, a couple years together.”
It will take time for Coan to develop some of those relationships, perhaps more time given the pandemic has limited his interactions these last three months. But Davis is already warming to him, if you will.
“I’m really excited to work with Jack, as well,” he said. “Our relationship is growing, letting the team grow. Prior to the spring, we had built a small relationship and I am looking forward to it growing.”
In the intangible realm of locker room dynamics, Kelly letting Coan prove himself to his teammates both on and off the field before deferring to him makes sense, even if every ounce of logic suggests Coan transferred to Notre Dame with the expectation of starting. His track record at Wisconsin and some advice from Kelly should only help expedite the process.
“You’ve got a lot of recognition for the things that you’ve accomplished already in the Big Ten at Wisconsin, so the guys know who you are,” Kelly said he told Coan. “Be who you are, be authentic and when you’re authentic, guys trust you.”
And then Kelly either betrayed an inevitability or was referencing Coan’s days in Madison. The syntax left it ambiguous.
“When you’re a starting quarterback, you already have great traits and his work ethic is outstanding, so we knew a lot of that about him already and so he came in here and has fit in extremely well because he’s been authentic, he’s been who he is and hasn’t tried to pretend. Naturally, leadership will follow that position and that’s kind of what’s happened.”
All that said, Kelly echoed some of the old Ian Book tropes in discussing why he won’t rule out Pyne.
“It doesn’t phase him,” Kelly said. “… Drew is built for this. He’s always been told that he’s not good enough or can’t be the starter or can’t win, and he relishes those opportunities. He’s always succeeded, so this doesn’t affect Drew at all. It just motivates him even more.”
While Coan and Pyne rotate first-team reps, with Buchner showing his natural talent in flashes, the biggest question of Notre Dame’s spring will unfold directly in front of them. Who will start along the offensive line?
Replacing four starters may be new ground for the Irish, but the underlying principle of it traces through Kelly’s 12 years at Notre Dame. All-American, multi-year starters have consistently headed to the NFL draft and left inexperienced underclassmen to fill their voids.
“Being in the College Football Playoff two out of the last three years doesn’t give you a pass in saying, well, we lost all those players,” Kelly said. “All it means is that’s the expectation, so we got to get these guys ready.”
These guys will be anchored by senior Jarret Patterson at left tackle and junior Zeke Correll at center. Kelly said fifth-year Josh Lugg will play at tackle, but “most likely will slide back into the guard position when the season starts.” For the sake of continuity and precedent, that is most likely right guard, where Lugg has spent time in the past.
Kelly said sophomore Tosh Baker started at tackle in Patterson’s absence (foot, sidelined all spring). Fifth-year Dillan Gibbons started at guard, as did senior John Dirksen, with Lugg still taking reps at tackle.
To simplify that, Gibbons and Dirksen are competing to start at guard opposite of Lugg, who will move to guard unless no viable tackle option presents itself to work as a bookend with Patterson. The first tackle option appears to be Baker, followed by sophomore Michael Carmody and perhaps junior Andrew Kristofic.
“A lot of names,” Kelly said in an understatement. “We got to kind of sort it out as it goes.”
JOINING PATTERSON AND CLARK ON THE SIDELINE
Patterson’s Lisfranc injury will cost him this spring, as will junior defensive tackle Jacob Lacey’s shoulder injury and senior receiver Kevin Austin’s broken and re-broken foot. At least, in Austin’s case, Kelly sees it as “unlikely” he sees springtime action.
In an encouraging surprise — editorializing with adjectives such as encouraging is appropriate when discussing possible career-altering injuries — senior linebacker Paul Moala may participate in 7-on-7 action later in the spring despite tearing his Achilles last October against Florida State.
“It’s going really well, fabulous, actually,” Kelly said of Moala’s rehab. “I think he’s got a chance to help us here in the spring, help us or help himself, I guess, more than anything else. … I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see some of him in the spring.”
Junior safety Kyle Hamilton will also be held out throughout the spring after undergoing minor ankle surgery in January. If nothing else, this will save Hamilton some wear-and-tear while giving more opportunities for the morass of safeties to establish a pecking order for new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.