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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame quarterback uncertainty has reached an unforeseen understandable status

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback’s Tyler Buchner (12) and Jack Coan (17) look on from the sidelines with head coach Brian Kelly during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 2, 2021, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brian Kelly might actually not know. Through all the coach-speak that is to be expected when discussing personnel decisions, with a cushion granted by a midseason idle week, the Irish head coach sincerely might not know who Notre Dame’s starting quarterback will be next week against USC.

After Saturday night’s inverted yo-yo performances from Jack Coan and freshman Tyler Buchner, it would be a surprise if Kelly did know with certainty.

“I know you guys are anxious to kind of write a story about it, but I can’t in all good conscience say he’s the starter or he’s the starter,” Kelly said after the 32-29 victory at Virginia Tech. “You know where we’re at. We’re stringing this together the best we can.”

That was not even in response to someone asking who his starting quarterback was. After that chaos at Lane Stadium, that question was not asked, because while Kelly is right and naming a starting quarterback is evergreen fodder, no one among the media expected Kelly to do so, not after Coan had needed to be benched and then Buchner had thrown two interceptions, fortunate not to have thrown three or four, and not after Coan led the game-tying and game-winning drives once Buchner got the Irish on the scoreboard in the first place.

Kelly was asked if their skillsets were “disparate.” He may as well have been asked if their peaks and valleys were.

“That’s fair,” Kelly replied to the disparate skillsets prompt, and those differences will presumably determine who No. 14 Notre Dame (5-1) trots out against the Trojans.

Setting aside sophomore Drew Pyne, as the Irish seemed to last weekend — he offers lesser, though more consistent, versions of each of Coan’s and Buchner’s strengths — the decision may come down to the risk-reward calculus of relishing a high floor with mild success or chasing a high ceiling despite possible failure.

When given ample time and space, Coan represents a higher 2021 ceiling for the Irish, ironic considering he was brought in as a transfer from Wisconsin to raise the season’s floor. Coan’s final two drives against the Hokies were precise, efficient and replicable. That latter quality, perhaps the most important, hinges on Notre Dame’s offensive line as much as anything else, and while it showed well against Virginia Tech, there is still far more evidence of its struggles this year than its successes, so Coan’s ceiling may not be a consistently attainable level.

Buchner’s running ability raises the Irish floor, easing that offensive line’s burden and increasing the regular effectiveness of junior running back Kyren Williams and sophomore running back Chris Tyree. But Buchner has played only one full football season in the last four years (torn ACL in 2018, played in 2019, pandemic in 2020), a lack of experience that was abundantly evident as he repeatedly misread the Hokies’ defensive coverages Saturday.

“He did some really good things and then he did some things that are inexperience,” Kelly said. “You don’t throw the ball into the boundary versus cover eight without knowing that the corner is not squatting. They are technical things that he is still seeing.”

That learning curve may need game reps to reach its conclusion, but it should not be started against opposing defenses, and even with his early enrollment, Buchner is still in the early stages of learning to be a quarterback at this level, a process usually aided by facing strong competition as a senior in high school, rather than no competition at all. Those lessons will come, and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees seems an ideal candidate to teach them, in the first eight months of 2022, but that will leave concerns for the next seven games.

“He did some nice things, but he’s young,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be really good, but we’re trying to figure this thing out, too, as we go.”

Kelly was not being facetious. His postgame availabilities this season have been everything but misleading. Kelly has a few days to ponder who will get first-team reps in preparation for USC, and he may need each one of them.

In the meantime, Kelly will devote some of the off week’s practices to the young players on the roster and those others buried on the depth chart or on the scout team. But only some.

Kelly anticipated spending most of the week letting his team recover.

“It’s really a slippery slope. [Idle] weeks are a little bit different,” Kelly said last week. “You have to gauge what you want to be able to accomplish as it relates to skill development vs. resting your football team. It’s a fine line between the two. You want to give them some time off. …

“There’s no — poof, we had a week off, all these [underclassmen] are ready. You’re going to do a little work, but that’s about it.”

Of course, Notre Dame needs the time to get healthy. Setting aside the season-ending MCL tear suffered by senior receiver Joe Wilkins, the Irish offense needs a few players to get healthy:

— Buchner’s turned ankle at Virginia Tech did not prevent him from throwing on the sideline in the fourth quarter, but its status remains unknown.— Turf toe kept Tyree out of the second half Saturday.— His left ankle, sprained against Toledo, may have played a role in sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody ceding a full game of playing time to freshman Joe Alt, thought Alt performed impressively in the role.— Junior tight end Michael Mayer wanted to play in situational packages against the Hokies, primarily in the red zone and on some third downs, but Kelly feared that limited role would invite further injury to Mayer’s groin strain.

Notre Dame trotted out the obvious “Exit Sandman” social media post after winning in Lane Stadium. Not every week can deliver an absolute hit.

Then again, Ole Miss may have found a readymade recurring bit with this flamethrower …

Jack Coan and Jonathan Doerer combine to push Notre Dame past Virginia TechHighlights: A game won by broken plays and unexpected substitutesThings We Learned: ‘Not perfect’ Notre Dame’s resilience gives improvements time

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