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Notre Dame ends preseason QB competition, naming sophomore Tyler Buchner the starter

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, VA - OCTOBER 09: Tyler Buchner #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts a pass against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the second half of the game at Lane Stadium on October 9, 2021 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

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As a new question pops up to plague the Notre Dame offense, the Irish at least finally answered an obvious one: Sophomore Tyler Buchner will be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback in three weeks at Ohio State, officially beating out junior Drew Pyne in a competition that always seemed headed for this resolution.

“An extremely difficult decision, one that me and [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] spent an enormous amount of time talking about,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday. “It’s not really a seven-practice decision. This is something we looked at last year, we looked at spring, we looked at the summer and the start of fall camp, an entire body of work.

“We just felt like it was time. It was time to give the offense clarity on who is going to be the starting quarterback.”

Pyne began last season as Jack Coan’s backup, but Buchner gradually moved into that role. Neither finished the year as a particularly efficient passer, but Buchner’s 46 rushes for 336 yards and three touchdowns offered a dual-threat aspect that Pyne’s laudable mobility still lacked.

“Those guys can both give us a chance to win,” Freeman said. “We just think Tyler brings an element, a dynamic element with his feet, the ability to extend plays, to have a QB-running game, that really added into this decision.”

That ability should only increase in the next three weeks now that this nominal competition is concluded. That was, in part, why the coaching staff wanted to make this decision after only one week of preseason practices.

“Part of this decision is to allow [Buchner] that platform to really not be apprehensive about every play, every decision,” Rees said. “It allows him the freedom to go out there and operate, knowing that this team has his back and we’re ready to move forward.”

But as Freeman and Rees informed Buchner and Pyne of this decision on Friday, they also emphasized a reality of college football.

“I can’t think of, in my years of playing football, in my years of coaching football, a time where you didn’t have two quarterbacks play throughout the season,” Freeman said.

Rees described Pyne as still one of the 15 most important players on Notre Dame’s roster. Buchner pointed to him as part of the reason Buchner has developed as he has.

“Every single day, [Pyne] pushes me to get better,” Buchner said. “He pushes me to spend more time in the building, watch film with him, compete every single day in practice. He’s worked unbelievably hard, and I couldn’t be happier to have him on this team.”

Both Buchner and Pyne have three years of eligibility remaining; by playing in only two games last season — against Wisconsin and Cincinnati — there is no advantage to holding back Pyne’s availability in 2022.

Notre Dame announced early Saturday that sixth-year receiver Avery Davis will be lost for the season after tearing his ACL on Friday, his second ACL tear in less than a year.

Davis persevered through four positions and that initial torn ACL to be both a locker-room leader and a likely significant contributor in 2022. Instead, his collegiate career may be over.

“You’re not going to find a guy that’s more respected than Avery Davis, from his peers to his coaches,” Rees said. “The way he’s handled himself — you want to talk about heartbreak for a program, everybody has felt that for Avery.

“For him to fight through everything early in his career, to find a role, own that role, be voted a captain, tear his knee, decide to come back, and then for it to happen again. You can’t ever justify it, right?”

Freeman said the injury came on a jet sweep on Friday. When Davis planted to cut, he went to the turf, but the initial thoughts were nowhere near as concerning as a torn ACL. Thus, the Irish did not start pondering how to fill that void until late Friday night and early Saturday morning.

Freeman acknowledged moving a defensive back to receiver — the route Davis took, in part — could be an option, as could be utilizing some tight ends more like receivers.

“There’s a lot of guys that can help us, there’s a lot of different things we can do with the people we have on this team,” Freeman said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to utilize our personnel.”

There may be two more pieces available to the receivers than expected just earlier Saturday.

Sophomore Deion Colzie was seen out of pads and in a knee brace entering practice on Friday, but he has only a sprained PCL and Freeman expects Colzie back “soon.”

More surprisingly, Freeman moved fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins into the probable category to face the Buckeyes in three weeks. After a Lisfranc injury in the spring, it was presumed Wilkins would be sidelined into midseason.

“He’s ahead of schedule,” Freeman said. “That’s part of the discussion in terms of where do we want to go offensively in that wideouts room.

“We expect Joe Wilkins to be back for the Ohio State game, which I don’t know if I would have said that last week. He is ahead of schedule. As long as he continues to progress in the direction he’s going, we expect him back for week one.”

With Wilkins and Colzie, but without Davis, Buchner will be throwing to seven scholarship receivers, including one former walk-on.

Three of them, including Colzie, are sophomores like Buchner. Tobias Merriweather is a freshman. Fifth-year Matt Salerno is the former walk-on. Combined, those five have five career catches, including one for Salerno that was more akin to a four-yard rushing loss.

“We’ve got some young guys who have to step up,” Freeman said. “You’re going to have to see Lorenzo Styles, Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Tobias Merriweather step up. You’re going to have to see Matt Salerno step up.

“What it does is it creates more roles and a bigger responsibility for those guys in that room.”

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