Leftovers & Links: Past mistakes illustrate narrow path for Notre Dame amid QB controversy

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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Brian Kelly has handled a quarterback conundrum perfectly before. He has also handled one horribly. As No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) heads to Virginia Tech (3-1) (7:30 ET; ACCN) without yet naming a starting quarterback, the Irish head coach will need to remember the lessons he learned in 2016 that applied so successfully to 2018.

Kelly has candidly and repeatedly admitted over the years, he handled the quarterback competition between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire poorly entering and during the 2016 season. Zaire won the 2015 starting job and then suffered a broken ankle in the second week of the year, at which point Kizer excelled. Kelly did not feel Zaire should lose his job solely due to injury, so he gave both playing time in 2016.

That divided the locker room and played a pivotal role in the 4-8 debacle that followed.

Kelly remembered those lessons, that serving everybody meant serving nobody, when he switched to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush mid-season in 2018. It helped that both Book and Wimbush handled the change with the utmost diplomacy. There was a reason no one balked when it was leaked before the College Football Playoff that Wimbush would transfer to Central Florida: He had earned that goodwill in the locker room.

Kelly needs to find that 2018 mixture as he navigates between Jack Coan and Drew Pyne this week, lest this 2017-present resurgence suddenly ends as it began.

“We’re going to have one guy and we’re going to let him know that the reps are for him to be the starter and focus on one guy,” Kelly said Monday. “We just haven’t gotten a chance to talk to that individual yet, we know exactly who it is.”

That last phrase alone suggests Kelly will not repeat 2016’s mistakes, although a microcosm of them did rear its ugly head in Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati. Whether Notre Dame leans on the veteran Coan or the savvy sophomore Pyne, or even freshman Tyler Buchner, committing to one is the greatest priority.

“Nobody was perfect, as we know, at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “There were some mistakes made by all three, but at the end of the day, who gives you the best chance to win. This is still about winning football games. We feel like we’ve got a team that can win the rest of their games, and we want to be able to put the quarterback out there that we believe gives us the chance to do that.”

Kelly won’t announce that quarterback until after “Exit Sandman” blares through Lane Stadium on Saturday, a mundane bit of gamesmanship par for the course in 2021, but whatever decision has been reached, he needs to remember 2016. Flipping from that decision at any point moving forward could torpedo the Irish hopes of winning the rest of their games — and given Notre Dame will be favored throughout the rest of its schedule with the possible exception of against North Carolina, that goal is not an outlandish one by any means.

The optics, or the reality, of flipping from a decision against the Bearcats is part of why Kelly needs to navigate this uncertain terrain again. Kelly told ND on NBC sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen that Coan would remain in the game after halftime, but then Pyne played the entire half.

Kelly said Monday that was more a result of not confirming an assumption with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, but whatever the process, the communication with Pyne and thus with the team was lacking. It cannot be unclear moving forward, lest the locker room develop any unnecessary tension whatsoever.

Of course, avoiding that also lands on the shoulders of the players, and much like Book and Wimbush in 2018, the current quarterbacks give the impression they understand the situation and will handle it like professionals.

Pyne quite literally cannot get through an answer discussing his back-to-back weeks of second-half substitutions (coming in against Wisconsin after Coan was injured) without stopping to praise Coan.

“Jack, first of all, is one of my best friends,” Pyne said Saturday. “He’s an unbelievable person and unbelievable quarterback. He prepares harder than anybody else. We’re all like this (fingers crossed together). I just have to stay ready, it’s how I am.”

Pyne credits his readiness to Book, a one-year mentor and a case study in the results that can come from expecting the unexpected. Wimbush had gone 12-3 as a starter when Book replaced him. Despite his struggles in the throwing game, winning usually keeps a starter in place, but Book readied as if his day could come at any point, nonetheless, and last year his example rubbed off on Pyne.

“He always dragged me along, staying until 10 o’clock at night, being in there with him and coach Rees is something I’ll always be thankful for,” Pyne said. “And that led me in the right direction.”

Book’s example may have rubbed off on the dynamics of the quarterbacks room, as well. Pyne insists there is no friction among him, Coan and Buchner, even as one’s entry takes away from the others’ snaps.

“There’s no controversy between us, there’s never any sign of doubt between us,” he said. “Whoever is on the field, we all have each other’s back. That’s all, we’re all just trying to get better.”

Instinct — and this is not reporting at all, simply instinct — suggests Pyne will start Saturday, his first career start. His continuing to echo Book’s lessons should help Kelly avoid past pitfalls, and thus give the Irish a fighting chance at an 11-1 finish.

12 YEARS, 8 QBs
Kelly has had some high-profile quarterback competitions, but the truth is, he has leaned on only eight quarterbacks — Pyne would make nine — in 12 seasons. Given the natural turnover rate of college football, that is hardly extreme.

2010: Dayne Crist’s (1) injury gave way to Tommy Rees (2), though Nate Montana made a memorable cameo.
2011: Crist’s early struggles again gave way to Rees, though Andrew Hendrix made a memorable cameo.
2012: Everett Golson (3) handled the bulk of the work, with Rees stepping in at key moments.
2013: With Golson suspended, Rees again took over as the starter.
2014: Golson carried the load.
2015: Malik Zaire (4) started, but his early injury gave way to DeShone Kizer (5).
2016: Kizer and Zaire split more time than they should have.
2017: Brandon Wimbush (6) carried the load.
2018: Wimbush’s early struggles gave way to Ian Book (7).
2019-2020: Book carried the load.
2021: Jack Coan (8) started.

ON A FEW INJURIES
This was mentioned in passing in a late-week column before the Cincinnati tilt, but to say it more formally: Kelly expects freshman left tackle Blake Fisher (meniscus) to miss the rest of the year. The initial prognosis of about eight weeks was optimistic in every sense.

Sophomore Michael Carmody’s sprained ankle could not yet let him “play at the level he needed to” against the Bearcats, now a day-to-day situation per Kelly. And sophomore Tosh Baker is in the concussion protocols.

Hence former high school tight end freshman Joe Alt handling left-tackle duties.

Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer has an abductor strain, which Kelly considered good news.

“It wasn’t something that we felt like we couldn’t manage, so we’ll be managing him during the week, and he’ll be able to play this weekend,” Kelly said. “But we’ll be smart with him.”

ON ONE MORE NON-INJURY
If Notre Dame’s season was truly falling apart, a wonderful truck-crash analogy could have led this article, but the Irish are not on the verge of a 2016-esque collapse. If Notre Dame had no reason to think it should still win at least 10 games in 2021, then Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati would be somehow compared to a concrete wall alongside the interstate just west of Chicago.

Anyway, sorry for two days of in-season silence in these parts. It took until midday Monday to simply retrieve a laptop from the junkyard.

But all is well (totaled truck aside) and we proceed.

OH, AND ON ONE BURN
If the Irish social media team is going to deliver rimshots regarding drums and jumping around, then Cincinnati has every right to put together this magnificent taunt after beating Notre Dame.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Cincinnati holds off late Notre Dame rally sparked by QB Drew Pyne
Things We (Didn’t) Learn: Notre Dame has another uncertain quarterback situation on Brian Kelly’s hands
Highlights: Cincinnati 24, Notre Dame 13 — Braden Lenzy’s touchdown, Chris Tyree’s costly fumble, injury updates

OUTSIDE READING
Cincinnati’s Playoff path is undeniable now after a win over Notre Dame to remember
Football and friendship: How Dillan Gibbons made a family’s dream for their son come true
Athletics departments finding ways to deal with football game-day staffing challenges
Top 25 prospects, best by position in Mel Kiper’s Big Board
The questions that loom over potential Playoff teams
Mike McCarthy: Releasing Jaylon Smith a “big-picture roster move”
Will Fuller broke a finger on Sunday
Tracking COVID-19 at Notre Dame
NBC, YouTube TV finalize a deal
The high stakes behind USC’s coaching search
Notre Dame swim coach resigns a week after settlement in gender discrimination lawsuit
Alumni Hall to undergo renovation, residents to move to Zahm next year

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.