Friday at 4: Four things to learn from Notre Dame’s preseason, beginning Saturday

Jack Coan Drew Pyne
Notre Dame Athletics

A day later than most of the country, the price of paying in the national primetime window on Labor Day Eve, Notre Dame will return to practice tomorrow, and 29 days later, the Irish will face Florida State.

Before then, Notre Dame has to learn a lot, true of any preseason, but a few questions loom larger than others. The Irish have not wondered who would start at quarterback since halfway through the 2018 season, a luxury provided by Ian Book’s record-setting career.

But Notre Dame should not spend much time this preseason wondering about its starting quarterback, even without Book. Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent the spring insisting on the merits of a quarterback competition, though it seemed nominal to have one between Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne.

“I kind of like the competition that continues to go,” Kelly said in late April. “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.”

Right there Kelly said “when we come in,” and while springtime competition may create a positive practice atmosphere, naming Coan the starter this week will allow him to establish more credibility and chemistry with his receivers.

“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,” Kelly said.

It can now influence Notre Dame moving forward, so Kelly should probably name Coan the starter. Pyne proved capable this spring and will make the 2022 competition with early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner an intriguing one, but the Irish did not bring in a Rose Bowl-caliber quarterback to signal plays, and carrying the thin competition into mid-August will only slow Coan’s ownership of the Irish offense.

Similarly, settling on an offensive line alignment this week will be vital to establishing chemistry up front. Notre Dame has not worried about its offensive line in a few years — the 2020 group returned more starts than any Irish line in history.

That bill comes due in 2021, with Marshall transfer Cain Madden bringing in as many career starts as the rest of Notre Dame’s entire line combined, 31. Madden, senior Jarrett Patterson and fifth-year Josh Lugg are all veterans, but they are not used to each other. Amplify that latter thought a few times over for junior Zeke Correll and early-enrolled freshman left tackle Blake Fisher.

Notice only one of those names was mentioned alongside a position. Fisher looks set to be the first freshman season-opener starter at tackle since Sam Young, who just retired after an 11-year NFL career. Before Young, no freshman had ever started the season opener on the Irish offensive line.

Fisher is in transcendent territory already. It might ease that jump to know who will line up next to him. In the spring, that appeared to be fellow early-enrolled freshman Rocco Spindler, but Madden’s transfer changed that.

He earned second-team All-American status at right guard while with the Thundering Herd. Starting at right guard at Notre Dame seems logical, but that would then move Patterson from his supposed spring positioning. (Patterson did not actually partake in the spring due to a foot injury, but every move was made with him in mind, as perhaps the best Irish offensive lineman.)

If Patterson does not remain at right guard, does he move to right tackle, usurping Lugg; to center, usurping Correll; or to left guard, dropping Spindler to the second-string?

Spindler looks headed to the second-string no matter what, through no fault of his own, but Fisher has worked alongside his classmate more than anyone else. Beginning to log reps with his eventual left-side partner as soon as possible will help all involved.

One thing is for sure, that will not be junior Hunter Spears. He was buried on the depth chart at left guard in the spring, partly the result of a pair of torn ACLs back in high school. Those injuries have now forced Spears to retire from football.

Who else will be missing from Notre Dame’s active roster?

Speculation swirled through message boards the last week that could impact all semblances of depth at the Vyper end position, formerly known as the Drop end. Adding to that with more vague references of uncertain situations is unnecessary and unproductive, but one thing is always clear: Someone will be coming back from a previously unknown injury or in the dog house due to “traits” issues, etc.

It is an inevitability only a few measures of certainty behind taxes, and it is not specific to the Irish. USC just dismissed a receiver due to legal issues, as one example.

The question is never if someone will be missing from Notre Dame’s active roster, but who and how many.

It would, however, be a surprise if any of those absences tie to coronavirus protocols.

The NCAA released its recommendations for testing protocols this fall, and it boils down to two categories, vaccinated and unvaccinated. If an individual is fully vaccinated (or tested positive in the past 90 days), he will not need to be tested unless symptomatic or if more than five percent of the team has tested positive and he is a close contact of one of those. If an individual is unvaccinated, he will be tested three times each week.

In effect, if everyone tied to the football program is vaccinated, no one will be tested unless symptomatic, and in that instance, still no one else would need to be tested. There is a very literal competitive advantage there, both in terms of mental fatigue and in terms of roster stability.

Fortunately for the Irish, the University is requiring all students to be vaccinated before returning to campus, so Kelly should not even need to spend time discussing the clear science with any hesitant players. As of Friday afternoon, 90 percent of the University community has provided proof of vaccination.

Hopefully, when Kelly is asked about vaccination counts during Saturday’s media availability, he can provide a percentage even higher than that, an answer akin to Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley’s. After getting through the 2020 season with only one positive test, the Eagles then got their entire roster vaccinated except for one player who refused and subsequently transferred. Similarly, 126 of Wake Forest’s 129 players got vaccinated.

Now neither Boston College nor Wake Forest has the Playoff aspirations Notre Dame does, but they gained a slight competitive advantage all the same, not to mention displayed an understanding of common sense.

For the Irish to win double-digit games for a fifth straight season, they will need an established quarterback playing behind an offensive line with chemistry and a largely intact roster. That begins this weekend, and it should begin with Coan knowing who will be his left guard, and that said player is fully vaccinated.

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