Things We Learned, Part I: Notre Dame has a choice to make and it’s not Coan or Buchner

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame (2-0) does not have a quarterback controversy on its hands, and no, the Irish should not attempt to live solely in a two-quarterback world, either.

While freshman Tyler Buchner may have been the catalyst that sparked the Irish offense in the 32-29 victory against Toledo (1-1) on Saturday, and Jack Coan led the game-winning drive, complete with an iconic image of him quickly fixing a dislocated finger, Notre Dame is not faced with a decision between the two or even a decision of using both.

Brian Kelly and the Irish need to decide if they will run or pass. That is the distinction between Buchner and Coan, a decision Kelly did not expect to face in 2021.

“I thought we would get to a run game that we felt comfortable with sooner,” Kelly said Saturday after his running backs scrapped for 90 yards on 23 carries. “On the other hand, I think the personnel is driving a lot of this in terms of making it difficult to settle on something, because we have some guys that really can make plays, and we’re a little hesitant at times to say this is who we’re going to be.”

Notre Dame could rekindle its 2017-2020 offenses that devoted tight ends and receivers to run blocking, supplementing offensive lines varying from very good to dominant, and thus showcase junior running back Kyren Williams and sophomore running back Chris Tyree. But doing so would not be the optimal use of sophomore tight end Michael Mayer or senior receivers Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy.

For that matter, the 2017-2020 offenses were not good enough to get the Irish into contention with college football’s top-tier. Leaning into Mayer’s, Austin’s and Lenzy’s downfield abilities would better those chances.

Buchner’s mobility — seven rushes for 68 yards in spot duty against the Rockets — forces a defense to devote at least one defender to him, meaning Williams or Tyree have one less would-be tackler to evade. Coan’s strong arm and poise in the pocket — a pocket that could be better protected if keeping Williams in it to block rather than out on pass routes — better the chances of Mayer, Austin and Lenzy breaking loose downfield.

It isn’t that Notre Dame faces a choice between the two quarterbacks. It’s that it needs to pick an identity.

“We have to stop tinkering and say, alright, this is it, let’s go,” Kelly said. “We’re in a transition. As I told the guys in the locker room, starting Monday we have to really make it simple for everybody.”

Perhaps in time, Buchner could make the most of this bounty of talent that is essentially giving the Irish too many options, but not yet, at least not as of his debut.

“The offense has to be, certainly some run game for Tyler,” Kelly said. “But he’s got to be able to go in there and (if) he’s in there on that last drive, we have to be able to throw the football down the field.”

Notre Dame opened up more of the offense with Buchner than it expected, but not enough to throw him in at the end of the game. First, let it be clear, Buchner’s cameos were expected.

“We knew Tyler was going to have some packages this season,” Mayer said. “What he did today, he’s been doing all camp, he did all summer, didn’t surprise me at all. He’s very capable of that.”

But secondly, the Irish did not debate for a moment if Coan should lead the final drive. His experience is an inarguable asset, as is his ability to push the ball down the field. When protected, Coan has played very well. Even while getting harassed by Toledo’s front, Coan completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt. Those are not great numbers, but if that is considered his floor, it is a very high floor.

Notre Dame’s offensive line looks a few weeks away from coalescing, in a best-case scenario — “We had some issues in protection for various reasons,” Kelly said in an attempt to defray that criticism — but if shored up, Coan’s ability to move the Irish down the field need not be questioned.

“What we need is to keep working with those guys and get them better,” Kelly said. “Maybe we have to move the pocket a little bit, maybe we have to do some things to help them a little bit. … We have options to figure this thing out. It’s not rocket science. Those kids are good, young players, but they’re young. We can win with those guys.”

That shoring can come via some of the potential stars. Leaning on a running back or tight end to help a third-string left tackle is far from a galling audible. If refusing to do that, though, then the downfield passing game may need to be scrapped.

If protecting the quarterback in the pocket comes at the expense of the running game, so be it. If developing the running game means cutting short the downfield passing game, so be it.

But Notre Dame will need to choose, not between Coan and Buchner, but between receivers as run blockers or running backs as pass blockers.

“We have to figure out where we want to go from here,” Kelly said. “We have some really good players, but this week will be, here’s where we are, let’s get to work.”