There may not be a position on Notre Dame’s roster with as clear a pecking order as the Irish quarterback, which should remove a good bit of stress from spring practices. Barring a complete and total reversal of all trend lines, sophomore Tyler Buchner will start for the Irish at Ohio State (184 days).
A sophomore hasn’t had this firm of a hold on the starting gig heading into a season, let alone a spring, since Everett Golson in 2012, and even then, Tommy Rees loomed over his shoulder from January to January. Before that, Rees took over as the starter 30 minutes into his sophomore year in 2011, so clearly his grasp was not as solid as Buchner’s appears to be.
Looking past these possibilities wrought with notes, the last sophomore to be the unquestioned Notre Dame starting quarterback in the season opener was Jimmy Clausen in 2008.
Buchner can end that stretch with a solid spring.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A year ago, the idea of Buchner and then-sophomore Drew Pyne leading the Irish quarterbacks room led to the incoming transfer of Jack Coan from Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Rees and head coach Brian Kelly were not comfortable with so little experience among their passers, not to mention hardly any depth while Brendon Clark recovered from a nagging knee injury.
Coan then ended any debate about who would be Notre Dame’s starter. Rose Bowl starters do not transfer into a program to be a backup. Behind him, Pyne beat out Buchner to be the first passer off the bench, and Clark spent the first half of the season regaining confidence in his knee.
Clark eventually transferred to Old Dominion, potentially reigniting the Irish concerns about depth for this season, but Buchner getting such extensive work throughout the season’s second half created both experience and some trust in the young thrower to be ready in 2022. He ended the season 21-of-35 for 298 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, along with 46 rushes for 336 yards and three more scores.
Coan: 3,150 yards with a 65.5 percent completion rate; 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions; two rushing touchdowns.
Buchner: 298 yards with a 60.0 percent completion rate; three touchdowns and three interceptions; 7.3 yards per rush with three rushing touchdowns.
Pyne: 224 yards with a 50.0 percent completion rate; two touchdowns and no interceptions.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s not undersell Pyne. All three Notre Dame quarterbacks played direct roles in wins in 2021, though with the benefit of hindsight, it could be wondered if the Irish were going to beat Wisconsin no matter who took snaps in the fourth quarter.
Coan won the most games, and Buchner’s spark changed the tide at Virginia Tech — for a while. Pyne similarly changed that tide against the Badgers, just enough to force Graham Mertz to keep throwing, Wisconsin’s greatest failing last season.
But Buchner will start for Notre Dame in Columbus.
His mobility unlocked the Irish offense throughout 2021, that dynamic in time also unlocking Coan’s greatest collegiate potential as Rees learned a quick-decision offense could excel behind a patchwork but developing line.
Buchner still has not played a complete season since 2018, a knee injury and then the pandemic upending the second half of his high school career. But he has been able to practice for the last 10 months, and that alone marks progress. If he continues to grasp defensive looks, then Buchner should not only start the first week of September, but even be ready to start the first week of September.
Saying such so definitively will spark some fans to worry Pyne is on his way out already. If that was the case, he would have made that decision in January. Rare is the player who leaves Notre Dame the summer before his junior year. Not knowing Pyne’s exact credit count, graduation may be one academic year away. At the moment, he still has four seasons of eligibility remaining; the universal pandemic eligibility waiver allowed 2021 to become his typical year of preservation, notably playing in only two games despite a few other chances to step in for Coan.
Furthermore, Pyne learned in 2021 how ready a passer has to be when he is one proverbial play away from taking over. If Buchner — and let’s remind, a mobile quarterback — sprains an ankle, the Irish could be relying on Pyne for a couple weeks.
No offense to rising sophomore Ron Powlus III, but attention turns next to early-enrolled freshman Steve Angeli. Powlus joined Buchner’s recruiting class in part because of the same depth concerns that led to the arrival of Coan. If those are no longer as pressing, then Powlus quickly looks like a career scout-team quarterback.
That means Angeli is one play away from being one play away. Do not take that as just a turn of phrase. In 2015, then-freshman Brandon Wimbush expected to have the entire season to adjust to the collegiate game, but after Malik Zaire broke his ankle in the second game of the year, Wimbush was suddenly the backup. Notre Dame memorably put away UMass in aggressive fashion two weeks later to be sure Wimbush could get a few series of work. He, of course, flashed with a 66-yard touchdown run.
An injury to Buchner or Pyne would put Angeli into that situation in short order. In that respect, this spring will be vital for him, learning enough to go into the summer knowing what he needs to do next.