Notre Dame’s Drew Pyne studied to turn his second first spring practices into a real QB competition
Drew Pyne was ready for his first spring practice. The Notre Dame quarterback studied the playbook diligently, both for memory and for comprehension. He felt he understood all the necessary reads. He was as ready as he could be.
“Once I went in there, I wasn’t nervous at all,” Pyne said this past Saturday. “I knew everything, and it was so much easier.”
Of course, that was early last March, and it was the only spring practice the then-early-enrolled freshman would get before the coronavirus pandemic forced Notre Dame to send the football team home for more than three months.
“That first spring ball practice, I studied so much before that, I knew all the plays, all the reads and everything else,” he said.
So when spring practice was cut short and Pyne had an abundance of time on his hands (as we all seemingly did 56 weeks ago), what did he do? Study some more.
“Going home for the amount of time that we were home leading up to last season, I saw that and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to study a lot more.’”
Suffice it to say, Pyne feels prepared to be the Irish starter in his sophomore season, despite the arrival of Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan. Whereas the former Big 10 starter has the experience advantage, Pyne has studied offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ playbook inside and out, learned it under Ian Book’s wing, and then studied some more.
Those are less tangible traits than Coan’s 437 career pass attempts (compared to Pyne’s three, for 12 yards on two completions), but Pyne’s work in Notre Dame practices all last year still happened all the same. Taking most of the second-team reps while Brendon Clark worked through a knee issue gave Pyne time behind the offensive linemen who are now competing for starting rights, gave him reps with the receivers now trying to replace Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek, gave him chances to hear from Book on possible improvements. Coan may have seen more live-action against Power Five-caliber defenses, but Pyne has spent more time in just about every other aspect of this vague conversation.
“I kind of like growing in everything, and I think I was able to do that last year getting all the second-team reps throughout the whole year and Ian taking me under (his) wing,” Pyne said before praising Book for a solid 30 more seconds for his mentorship, something that should not have been assumed given the four-year age gap between the two. “... I learned from him, learned from coach Rees. I was in watching film with them after every single practice to nine o’clock at night.
The odds and logic insist Coan will end up the starter. He would not have chosen Notre Dame for his final season of college if he did not have some reasonable expectation of that, but Pyne also has some expectations of starting, a confidence one needs to have the audacity to even commit to the Irish as a quarterback.
“I committed here in my sophomore year, and I’ve been committed here (for) what feels like a long time,” Pyne said. “I committed here when (former Notre Dame, now Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec) was here, Ian was here, Brendon was here. I always knew at Notre Dame, especially at a place like this, you have to know that you’re going to come in and compete with the best quarterbacks in the country.”
That attitude fits with Pyne’s clear intent of not yielding anything to Coan while maintaining team chemistry. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has publicly admitted he botched the handling of the 2016 quarterback competition, thus dividing the locker room. He kept those lessons in mind while delicately navigating a quarterback switch mid-unbeaten season in 2018 (still arguably the most impressive accomplishment of his 11 years at Notre Dame) and they remain applicable now. As long as Pyne is intent on becoming the Irish starter, Kelly is intent on him getting that chance this spring, Pyne’s first real spring practices.
“I think the way that Tommy (Rees) has got it set up, which is what we wanted, is a battle between Jack Coan and Drew Pyne,” Kelly said. “Those two guys are really getting equal reps with the first and second group, so a good battle there. … We evaluate that from day to day. One day we see some good things from Drew and then Jack does some really good things.”
If one player seems to rise shortly after another does, that may be a result of each other, a result of this quarterback competition — be it genuine or in name only — not dividing the team. (And that was never a given, despite Kelly’s hard-won lessons, as fifth-year receiver Avery Davis admitted some hesitancy to embracing a graduate transfer quarterback.) Book took Pyne under his wing last season, and that ethos has carried forward.
“[Coan] helps me when I’m in and I’m coming off, and I try to help him when he’s in and coming off,” Pyne said. “We do the same with [early-enrolled freshman Tyler Buchner]. We all have each other’s backs.
“We all know, when you’re in, we’re just controlling what we can control, and when we have our reps, we’re trying to maximize our reps, and when the other guy has their reps, we’re trying to help him. That’s a testament to coach Rees.”
Maybe Pyne ruins the best-laid plans of Coan’s transfer — Pyne did start as a freshman in high school and play about 50 games in his prep career. Maybe Coan holds off Pyne in the latter’s first spring practices, going far better than last year’s false start. Either way, this quarterback competition is clearly drama-free, for the betterment of all involved.