Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s quarterback ‘respect’ differs from the growing national norm

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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If it was good enough for Kyren Williams, it was good enough for Notre Dame fans and for this writer. After the Irish beat Virginia Tech, 32-29, the junior running back was asked about his plans for the off week.

“I’m definitely not doing anything football-wise,” he said. “As soon as we get off, I’m kicking my feet up and I’m done. I’m chilling until Monday comes and we’re back at it.”

Personally, it was not avoiding anything football-wise, but anything Notre Dame football-wise, though even a Yale at Connecticut game bore a resemblance to an Irish tilt.

No. 13 Notre Dame’s meeting with USC (7:30 ET; NBC) could follow that trend once again with Irish head coach Brian Kelly naming Jack Coan the starting quarterback as of Monday. The difference would be, the Bulldogs did not enter their weekend with the intention of playing the younger quarterback at all. Notre Dame fully expects to play freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner no matter how Coan performs in the first quarter.

That “mixture” may or may not play a part in wearing out the Trojans defensive line or bolstering the Irish running game, but it almost certainly is a balancing act more of college football needs to mimic moving forward. Quarterback depth charts are no longer the exhibits of long-term growth and development they once theoretically were.

Theoretically because at Notre Dame, multi-year starters have long been the case, rendering long-term growth down the depth chart largely a moot point, anyway. In the 41 years before this season, the Irish had 17 quarterbacks lead in passing in a season with 13 of them covering 37 seasons.

When Notre Dame brought in Coan from Wisconsin, that set up 2021 to be an exception along the lines of 1993 with Kevin McDougal, 2000 with Matt LoVeccchio and 2010 with Dayne Crist, years with momentary leaders, be they one-year notes by design, injury or circumstance, respectively.

One-year leaders are now a norm across the broader landscape, though, with transfers starring for singular seasons before jumping to the NFL or fallen starters transferring elsewhere for a chance at a fresh start. Keeping a quarterback depth chart intact is unlikely simply due to the limited chances at the position. Yet, at least halfway through the 2021 season, Kelly and the Irish seem to be managing egos among Buchner, Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne, not to mention junior Brendon Clark as he eases back from a knee injury.

“It starts with who you recruit to Notre Dame and the character of the kid makes a lot of those things go away,” Kelly said Monday. “The issues of being selfish or not wanting to see others succeed — that selflessness has to be part of what you’re looking for when you recruit.

“Now, they’re all competitive and they all want to play, but if you’re transparent with them and you’re face-to-face with them and what you see is what you do, you build that relationship with them. Then you’re going to have a room where the guys will work together.”

That room-first approach may make the most sense in the middle of a season, but it is not the case throughout the country. Most notably, sideline frustrations have shown perhaps more honest feelings at both Oklahoma and Florida. Meanwhile, when Buchner injured his ankle at Virginia Tech two weeks ago — “should be 100 percent for this week” — Coan was literally the first person off the sideline to help him up. And that room-first approach is helped by splitting reps in practice, with Coan typically taking about 60 percent of the first-team snaps and Pyne and Buchner sharing the rest. During the idle week, Clark took many of the seven-on-seven chances, per Kelly, to begin working his way back from missing both the spring and the preseason with a cranky knee.

“You pick your spots during practice to give them the dedicated work necessary to see their growth continue to happen,” Kelly said. “[Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] and I sit down and meet and talk about and have discussions to make sure that it’s not stalling the overall operation but making sure that the individual continues to grow. …

“Those guys cheer for each other. If Drew Pyne goes in there, [Coan and Buchner] will want him to succeed because they genuinely respect him for the work that he does.”

That focus on the individual shortly after the team may be a change from past Irish offensive coordinators, but it may not be enough to prevent some depth chart turnover this offseason, aside from Coan’s matriculation. If, however, Notre Dame’s in-season respect and cohesiveness persist through the winter and spring, it will set the Irish apart from most other programs in the country, not necessarily a small thing when chasing Playoff berths.

When Alabama lost to Texas A&M two weeks ago, it ended a Tide streak of 100 wins against unranked opponents, leaving Notre Dame’s 36 straight as the longest active streak in the country. Looking at the Irish schedule the rest of the season, no ranked foes are likely to appear on it, meaning it could reach as high as 42 yet this year.

Unless USC has something to say about that, with its own streak of note.

The Trojans’ last road loss? At No. 12 Notre Dame in 2019.

Simply a thought exercise needing to be worked through during the idle week … At 11-1, the Irish would likely be heading to either the Fiesta Bowl or the Peach Bowl. A Big Ten opponent — like Michigan or Michigan State or Penn State — or an SEC foe — like Mississippi or Kentucky or Texas A&M — or a Group of Five team like Coastal Carolina could await Notre Dame in Phoenix or Atlanta.

At 10-2, the Irish bowl possibilities would expand three- or four-fold, including the Holiday Bowl in San Diego against a Pac-12 foe or the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City against a Big Ten opponent or the Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando meeting the Big 12.

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