Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game is often defined by its quarterback revelations, be they pertinent or misleading. For every afternoon of Phil Jurkovec ending the day shell-shocked by his own terrible performance is an exhibition seen by a scarce few in which DeShone Kizer showed no hints of his future potential.
One of those portended what was to come, the other could not have been less impactful when the backup quarterback was thrown into the mix in an adverse moment.
So when the Irish wrap up their spring practices tomorrow afternoon (12:30 ET; exclusively on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service), while much attention will naturally be paid to the quarterback competition between Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan and rising sophomore Drew Pyne, only so much should be gleaned from their performances. Notre Dame’s coaching staff will take that latter approach.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Thursday that almost nothing could occur in the Blue-Gold Game to prompt him to end the quarterback competition now rather than carry it into August’s preseason camp.
“I’ve always felt like when it’s clearly in the best interest of the team and morale and it can influence you moving forward, you should probably name the quarterback. I don’t know if we’re in that position right now,” Kelly said. “We’re getting really good leadership from those guys. I don’t feel like that’s going to move the needle in the locker room at all at this point, and I kind of like the competition that continues to go.
“It’s really spirited and I think I’m leaning toward making that decision in camp when we come in, more so than establishing that sometime after the spring.”
That disclaimer and call for reason aside, the only glimpses of Coan thus far have been selected by Notre Dame in its distributed (and appreciated) B-roll clips after each practice. The spring finale will be the first chance to get a better, unfiltered look at the presumptive leader in the nominal quarterback competition.
Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees pushed back against comparing Coan to Ian Book last week, but the prompt to do so was more about the differences in the offense as a whole than it was about the differences between the two veterans. In both that answer and his general assessments of Coan, Rees highlighted his ability to “drive” the ball the width of the field. Seeing that in real-time would be an encouraging sign for an offense replacing seven starters.
Not to knock Pyne, but as has been the case much of the spring, the focus will quickly leapfrog him in the Blue-Gold Game. If come August he continues to make this more of a quarterback competition than expected, then a positive showing Saturday will undoubtedly be a part of his résumé, but even if he stubs his toe, as noted earlier, Blue-Gold performances can be only so indicative.
No matter how many words of reason are offered, early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner’s day will be dissected by all interested parties. In fairness, his is a unique case. The star recruit has not played in a game since the fall of 2019, opting to forgo California’s pandemic-delayed spring season in order to get a headstart at the next level. To help make up for that, Notre Dame will make him the only contact-approved quarterback in tomorrow’s first half.
“He hadn’t played in a year, we’re going to use the first half to allow him to really be part of this game without a red jersey,” Kelly said. “If he’s in there, we’ll see a little bit of his escapability.”
Buchner is not in the mix to start in 2021, but that does not mean a better idea of his and Notre Dame’s future cannot be gathered from his first game action in literal years.
Every other spring question derives from the quarterback play. It is football, after all.
Does Notre Dame have explosive receivers to complement sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and junior running back Kyren Williams? If it is not now or never for seniors Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys, that is only because August truly will be now or never.
Does Notre Dame truly have two freshmen on its starting offensive line? If early enrollees Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler have genuinely forced their way onto the starting unit, rather than simply playing there to make the most of these 15 practices, then the Irish will have both cause for optimism down the line and cause for concern in 2021. More than the order of appearance — clouded by the coaching staff splitting the roster into two supposedly equal teams of Blue and Gold — the comparison between Fisher and sophomore Tosh Baker at left tackle should shed light on the outlook of the Irish line for literal years to come.
When Liam Eichenberg did not hear his name called in Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft, he became the first starting left tackle during the Brian Kelly era to not become a first-round pick (with a two-game injury exception back in 2010). Dropping into the second round (or even third) hardly diminishes that run of excellence, and the competition between Baker and Fisher seems to be a competition to pick up that mantle, possibly into the 2025 draft.
And what of this newly aggressive defense? New defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has not installed his entire scheme just yet. The sheer hours of idle time in the summer will help with that. But still, some of his aggression should come through this weekend.
“We might do things a little bit different in terms of the overall picture of the scheme, we might pressure a little more, we might move a little bit more,” he said earlier in the month. “… We’re going to do the scheme I’m most comfortable with and they’ve all bought in.”
Freeman insists he has needed to change only so much to find that comfort level; Clark Lea instilled such a high degree of fundamentals into his defense — “What I think it takes to have success and what we must believe to have success has already been displayed before I ever got in this chair.” — but Freeman also insists things will change.
While this has been a spring absent his best player (junior safety Kyle Hamilton, ankle) and often without his most veteran (fifth-year linebacker Drew White, high-ankle sprain), Freeman has had his defensive line intact, and that remains the tone-setter.
“We’ve always been and will always be a defensive line-driven program,” Freeman said. “That means as our defensive line goes, our defense will go.”
Kelly said the two captains this weekend will be senior safety Houston Griffith and senior linebacker Shayne Simon, based on a spring-time points system, but the leadership will still undoubtedly derive from that line, particularly fifth-year tackle Kurt Hinish and fifth-year tackle-turned-end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.
Enough is known about Tagovailoa-Amosa that his move to end does not warrant higher notice in this preview, and every review of that move has indicated he took to it naturally but seeing that in live-action will also reassure both fans and Notre Dame’s coaching staff. Freeman’s defense will need that line to be as potent as ever, and Fisher’s rise to the starting lineup will carry more weight if he has done it against pass rushers to worry about. Proving that offensive line will give Coan’s height in the pocket more promise. And such is the circular nature of spring football previews.
#NotreDame and @NDonNBC announce 2021's kickoff times …
USC and North Carolina both at 7:30 ET, back-to-back weeks in late October in primetime.
Then 3:30 against Navy on Nov. 6.
Everything else will be at 2:30 ET.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) April 29, 2021
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