Notre Dame’s spring finale on Saturday lost some of its luster when sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner showed up to the Blue-Gold Game draft on Wednesday wearing a sizable ankle brace. Not to take away from NBC’s exclusive broadcast on Peacock (1 ET), but with Buchner ruled out of the intrasquad scrimmage, suddenly the exhibition’s intrigue dwindled quickly.
Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said the injury occurred barely 15 hours before the draft, a new piece to the Blue-Gold Game fitting with Freeman’s ethos of finding competition in all situations. With Buchner ruled out, junior quarterback Drew Pyne will lead the way for both the Blue and the Gold teams.
Freeman said Buchner missed a step walking down some stairs and simply rolled his right ankle.
“We had a quarterbacks meeting, and he left the quarterbacks meeting and it happened in the next 30 minutes,” Freeman said. “An unfortunate accident, so he’ll be out for the spring game. But he got 13 really, really good practices in. I’m pleased with that part.”
Every description of the injury suggested Buchner could play Saturday if the game mattered in any respect, so there is no need for long-term concern, only frustration about Saturday’s showcase. Without Buchner, much less can be gleaned, particularly since he has thrown just 35 meaningful passes in the last three years. (An injury cut short Buchner’s junior season of high school, and the pandemic robbed him of his senior season in 2020, leaving only last year’s 21-of-35 in 10 games as impactful pass attempts.)
To Freeman’s point, though, Buchner worked through 13 of Notre Dame’s 15 spring practices, and there were multiple scrimmages included in those, just not ones broadcast on a streaming app for all to see.
"(Tyler) Buchner had a non-football injury. It happened yesterday walking down steps – just kind of rolled his ankle, missed the bottom step…He'll be out for the spring game, but he got 13 really, really good practices in. I'm pleased with that part of it." – Marcus Freeman pic.twitter.com/oz0k0Cv80r
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) April 20, 2022
(Some browsers will cut off that embedded tweet at Buchner’s shins. Either click the tweet to see the full image or click this link to do so.)
Without Buchner, the attention will obviously turn to Pyne, who went 15-of-30 for 224 yards and two touchdowns last season, all marks slightly worse than Buchner’s, though Pyne did not throw any interceptions while Buchner threw three. The two engaged in a quarterback competition all spring, with the widely-held expectation that Buchner will emerge as the starter in August. This ankle injury certainly gives Pyne a chance to change that narrative Saturday.
Aside from Pyne, though, the Blue-Gold Game takes on a new flavor with Freeman’s draft. In addition to Pyne, seniors were assigned to teams, but from there, running backs coach Deland McCullough (Gold Team) and defensive line coach Al Washington (Blue Team) alternated picks through each position group.
A cynic might think the entire exercise was scripted by the coaching staff ahead of time, but McCullough and Washington certainly gave the impression of genuine competition. Freeman has tried to add that aspect to nearly every moment of practice this spring, so if he can turn the simple act of naming an exhibition roster into one with possible motivational tactics, it would fit that habit.
“If I was a player and I wasn’t No. 1, for example, I’d definitely be motivated to prove myself,” Washington said of the concept. “I think that’s what you want, and I think that’s part of coach Freeman’s plan, which was to bring that out, the enthusiasm. Guys bringing that competitive fire and spirit.”
And if the effect is nothing but a fun Wednesday morning and a new wrinkle to the Blue-Gold Game, there is no harm in that, either. Freeman is trying all sorts of ways to change things at Notre Dame in his first year as head coach; some ideas will work better than others.
“I’ve never been a part of a spring like this,” Washington said. “A lot of spring games are kind of business-like, a glorified practice. This definitely feels like a game, which is exciting. You work hard in the spring and to have an end like this, it really propels you into the summertime.”
Without overanalyzing a draft for a spring practice, one of the biggest surprises of the proceedings — the two teams went position group by position group — was hearing early-enrolled freshman Jadarian Price’s name second among the running backs, behind only sophomore Logan Diggs.
Junior Chris Tyree has dealt with a nagging ankle this spring, putting him among those listed as questionable for Saturday, so the pick may have been made in part due to expectations that Tyree may have a limited workload, but even then, Price went ahead of sophomore Audric Estime.
“That was a tough one right there,” McCullough said, discussing not only one of his own picks but also his entire position group. “I was torn. … We felt like we got a good diagnosis on Chris Tyree. He slipped a little bit, ended up being the dark horse for us. I’m excited about JD Price.”
Indeed, McCullough ended up with both of them, while Washington took Diggs and Estime.
Notable players sidelined for Saturday: Buchner, senior cornerback Cam Hart, sixth-year receiver Avery Davis, fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins, fifth-year center Jarrett Patterson, sophomore center Pat Coogan, early-enrolled freshmen offensive lineman Billy Schrauth and Joey Tanona, sophomore tight end Cane Berrong, fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, junior defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina, senior linebacker JD Bertrand.
Notable players questionable for Saturday: Tyree, early-enrolled freshman defensive end Tyson Ford.