At some point, Notre Dame needs to find some peace of mind should junior quarterback Drew Pyne suffer any injury. If Pyne’s helmet gets knocked off, if he sprains an ankle, if he joins the ever-lengthening list of quarterbacks with shoulder injuries across the country, the Irish (3-2) need to know freshman Steve Angeli could step in for a moment, a week, the season.
Ever since sophomore Tyler Buchner sprained his shoulder on Sept. 10 against Marshall, ending his season, Angeli has been one play away from one of the most prominent roles in sports, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
Favored by three scores against Stanford (7:30 ET; NBC), the same Cardinal that has lost 11 straight games against FBS opponents by an average of more than 18 points, in the familiar confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Saturday may be the moment the Irish first get Angeli some competitive snaps.
Of course, they should be only so competitive. Playing Angeli voluntarily would come only in a blowout.
There is a track record to follow. Back in 2015, when Malik Zaire broke his ankle in the second week of the season, then-freshman Brandon Wimbush was suddenly in Angeli’s current position. So the Irish moved up Wimbush’s timeline, developed him to an extent he could handle the workload if need be, and got him into the game at the first chance they could.
Leading Massachusetts 48-20 halfway through the third quarter two weeks later, Wimbush stepped in for DeShone Kizer. Wimbush finished with 92 rushing yards on four carries along with 17 yards on 3-of-5 passing, hardly anything paradigm-changing, but enough that Notre Dame’s coaching staff trusted he could play in a pinch.
That was the first chance for Wimbush.
Back then, doing so cost him a season of eligibility, something rectified when he did not play in his sophomore season, 2016. Nowadays, Angeli would need to play in five games to lose a year, one of the scenarios in which the four-game exception protects players’ health.
Saturday should be Angeli’s first chance.
Cal kept things too competitive the week after Buchner’s injury, and the Irish haven’t been home since. South Bend has always been the most likely site for Angeli’s debut.
“There’s no other option, we have to be comfortable (with Angeli),” head coach Marcus Freeman said on Sept. 22, the week after that win against Cal. “That’s [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’] and all of our’s job, to make sure we have a package.”
A month later, perhaps Angeli has more than simply a package at his disposal. He started studying the playbook with urgency on Sept. 11. Six days later, some Notre Dame fans wanted him to replace Pyne against the Bears, always a misguided notion but particularly then given Angeli did not know much of the playbook yet. But now, he should, and again, Notre Dame needs to know.
“You can’t ask someone to do things that they’re not capable of doing,” Freeman said. “I don’t think you’re going to ask Steve Angeli to run every single play that you’re asking Drew Pyne to run. It takes time to learn the entire package, the entire offensive system.
“Guess what, if Steve Angeli is presented with the opportunity, he has to go in there and execute. He has to go in there and do what we need our quarterbacks to do.”
Angeli has executed at Notre Dame Stadium before. He ran a two-minute drill to close the Blue-Gold Game and spring practices back in April, scampering to the pylon for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. That was in a scrimmage in front of a two-thirds-empty Stadium, but the environment and pseudo-pressure still served him well.
“Those reps are priceless,” Angeli said then. “I took a good amount of reps throughout the spring, but being able to finally be in a game environment and play real football, it’s really priceless and instrumental to my development.”
Such modest steps will not wow anyone. An intrasquad scrimmage can show only so much; the same can — and should — be said of a rout of spiraling Stanford. But these are the steps available to Angeli at the moment, steps Notre Dame needs him to take.
“We have to meet him halfway,” Freeman said. “We have to be able to ask Steve Angeli to do the things we know he can do. …
“I feel really strongly about the way he’s prepared. He’s prepared not as the scout team quarterback, but as a quarterback that can be ready to go into the game. He has the greatest example in Drew Pyne.”
Freeman went on to challenge Pyne to teach Angeli how to study film, perhaps unintentionally drawing a parallel between what Pyne can teach Angeli and what Ian Book taught Pyne.
At some point this season, it can be safely assumed Pyne will need to head to the sideline for at least a moment. There are seven games left in the year, simply enough. One knock, one twist, one unorthodox targeting penalty and then Angeli will be in the fray.
Notre Dame needs to know he can take that snap, and beating up on Stanford should create that opportunity.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) April 26, 2022
From there, the Irish can start to plot out the longer-term future, as well.
“A long season ahead of us,” Freeman said two days after Buchner’s injury. “Still have nine games guaranteed in front of us to evaluate Drew and Steve Angeli and Ronnie Powlus. If [quarterback] is a position of need that we need to go get a high school quarterback or a transfer quarterback, we’ll definitely evaluate it.”
That would be good process for Notre Dame, but the first concern is October and November, when there will be no high school quarterback or transfer quarterback to aid the Irish. Only Angeli if need be.
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