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Leftovers & Links: Past mistakes illustrate narrow path for Notre Dame amid QB controversy

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Drew Pyne (10) looks to throw the football 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 has handled a quarterback conundrum perfectly before. He has also handled one horribly. As No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) heads to Virginia Tech (3-1) (7:30 ET; ACCN) without yet naming a starting quarterback, the Irish head coach will need to remember the lessons he learned in 2016 that applied so successfully to 2018.

Kelly has candidly and repeatedly admitted over the years, he handled the quarterback competition between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire poorly entering and during the 2016 season. Zaire won the 2015 starting job and then suffered a broken ankle in the second week of the year, at which point Kizer excelled. Kelly did not feel Zaire should lose his job solely due to injury, so he gave both playing time in 2016.

That divided the locker room and played a pivotal role in the 4-8 debacle that followed.

Kelly remembered those lessons, that serving everybody meant serving nobody, when he switched to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush mid-season in 2018. It helped that both Book and Wimbush handled the change with the utmost diplomacy. There was a reason no one balked when it was leaked before the College Football Playoff that Wimbush would transfer to Central Florida: He had earned that goodwill in the locker room.

Kelly needs to find that 2018 mixture as he navigates between Jack Coan and Drew Pyne this week, lest this 2017-present resurgence suddenly ends as it began.

“We’re going to have one guy and we’re going to let him know that the reps are for him to be the starter and focus on one guy,” Kelly said Monday. “We just haven’t gotten a chance to talk to that individual yet, we know exactly who it is.”

That last phrase alone suggests Kelly will not repeat 2016’s mistakes, although a microcosm of them did rear its ugly head in Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati. Whether Notre Dame leans on the veteran Coan or the savvy sophomore Pyne, or even freshman Tyler Buchner, committing to one is the greatest priority.

“Nobody was perfect, as we know, at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “There were some mistakes made by all three, but at the end of the day, who gives you the best chance to win. This is still about winning football games. We feel like we’ve got a team that can win the rest of their games, and we want to be able to put the quarterback out there that we believe gives us the chance to do that.”

Kelly won’t announce that quarterback until after “Exit Sandman” blares through Lane Stadium on Saturday, a mundane bit of gamesmanship par for the course in 2021, but whatever decision has been reached, he needs to remember 2016. Flipping from that decision at any point moving forward could torpedo the Irish hopes of winning the rest of their games — and given Notre Dame will be favored throughout the rest of its schedule with the possible exception of against North Carolina, that goal is not an outlandish one by any means.

The optics, or the reality, of flipping from a decision against the Bearcats is part of why Kelly needs to navigate this uncertain terrain again. Kelly told ND on NBC sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen that Coan would remain in the game after halftime, but then Pyne played the entire half.

Kelly said Monday that was more a result of not confirming an assumption with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, but whatever the process, the communication with Pyne and thus with the team was lacking. It cannot be unclear moving forward, lest the locker room develop any unnecessary tension whatsoever.

Of course, avoiding that also lands on the shoulders of the players, and much like Book and Wimbush in 2018, the current quarterbacks give the impression they understand the situation and will handle it like professionals.

Pyne quite literally cannot get through an answer discussing his back-to-back weeks of second-half substitutions (coming in against Wisconsin after Coan was injured) without stopping to praise Coan.

“Jack, first of all, is one of my best friends,” Pyne said Saturday. “He’s an unbelievable person and unbelievable quarterback. He prepares harder than anybody else. We’re all like this (fingers crossed together). I just have to stay ready, it’s how I am.”

Pyne credits his readiness to Book, a one-year mentor and a case study in the results that can come from expecting the unexpected. Wimbush had gone 12-3 as a starter when Book replaced him. Despite his struggles in the throwing game, winning usually keeps a starter in place, but Book readied as if his day could come at any point, nonetheless, and last year his example rubbed off on Pyne.

“He always dragged me along, staying until 10 o’clock at night, being in there with him and coach Rees is something I’ll always be thankful for,” Pyne said. “And that led me in the right direction.”

Book’s example may have rubbed off on the dynamics of the quarterbacks room, as well. Pyne insists there is no friction among him, Coan and Buchner, even as one’s entry takes away from the others’ snaps.

“There’s no controversy between us, there’s never any sign of doubt between us,” he said. “Whoever is on the field, we all have each other’s back. That’s all, we’re all just trying to get better.”

Instinct — and this is not reporting at all, simply instinct — suggests Pyne will start Saturday, his first career start. His continuing to echo Book’s lessons should help Kelly avoid past pitfalls, and thus give the Irish a fighting chance at an 11-1 finish.

12 YEARS, 8 QBs
Kelly has had some high-profile quarterback competitions, but the truth is, he has leaned on only eight quarterbacks — Pyne would make nine — in 12 seasons. Given the natural turnover rate of college football, that is hardly extreme.

2010: Dayne Crist’s (1) injury gave way to Tommy Rees (2), though Nate Montana made a memorable cameo.2011: Crist’s early struggles again gave way to Rees, though Andrew Hendrix made a memorable cameo.2012: Everett Golson (3) handled the bulk of the work, with Rees stepping in at key moments.2013: With Golson suspended, Rees again took over as the starter.2014: Golson carried the load.2015: Malik Zaire (4) started, but his early injury gave way to DeShone Kizer (5).2016: Kizer and Zaire split more time than they should have.2017: Brandon Wimbush (6) carried the load.2018: Wimbush’s early struggles gave way to Ian Book (7).2019-2020: Book carried the load.2021: Jack Coan (8) started.

This was mentioned in passing in a late-week column before the Cincinnati tilt, but to say it more formally: Kelly expects freshman left tackle Blake Fisher (meniscus) to miss the rest of the year. The initial prognosis of about eight weeks was optimistic in every sense.

Sophomore Michael Carmody’s sprained ankle could not yet let him “play at the level he needed to” against the Bearcats, now a day-to-day situation per Kelly. And sophomore Tosh Baker is in the concussion protocols.

Hence former high school tight end freshman Joe Alt handling left-tackle duties.

Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer has an abductor strain, which Kelly considered good news.

“It wasn’t something that we felt like we couldn’t manage, so we’ll be managing him during the week, and he’ll be able to play this weekend,” Kelly said. “But we’ll be smart with him.”

If Notre Dame’s season was truly falling apart, a wonderful truck-crash analogy could have led this article, but the Irish are not on the verge of a 2016-esque collapse. If Notre Dame had no reason to think it should still win at least 10 games in 2021, then Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati would be somehow compared to a concrete wall alongside the interstate just west of Chicago.

Anyway, sorry for two days of in-season silence in these parts. It took until midday Monday to simply retrieve a laptop from the junkyard.

But all is well (totaled truck aside) and we proceed.

If the Irish social media team is going to deliver rimshots regarding drums and jumping around, then Cincinnati has every right to put together this magnificent taunt after beating Notre Dame.

Cincinnati holds off late Notre Dame rally sparked by QB Drew PyneThings We (Didn’t) Learn: Notre Dame has another uncertain quarterback situation on Brian Kelly’s handsHighlights: Cincinnati 24, Notre Dame 13 — Braden Lenzy’s touchdown, Chris Tyree’s costly fumble, injury updates

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