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Notre Dame’s offensive signees and arrivals: A quarterback competition in name only

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - Oregon v Wisconsin

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: Jack Coan #17 of the Wisconsin Badgers throws the ball during the second quarter of the game against the Oregon Ducks at the Rose Bowl on January 01, 2020 in Pasadena, California. The Oregon Ducks topped the Wisconsin Badgers, 28-27. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame will inevitably insist the quarterback competition is an open one this spring and preseason. Irish head coach Brian Kelly will spend at least a few weeks insisting Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner all received equal reps in practice, including rising junior Brendon Clark if his knee is healthy enough. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees offered the “open” distinction just last week.

But Notre Dame would not have brought Coan in as a graduate transfer from Wisconsin if he was not going to be immediately set in pole position.

“We are always in the business of creating competition and making this team better,” Rees said Wednesday. “We had an opportunity here with the numbers to add a quarterback to our roster. We felt like there was a need for a veteran presence in the room.”

Coan has started 18 games for a viable Power Five program, completing 69.6 percent of his passes and throwing 18 touchdowns against only five interceptions. He started a Rose Bowl after winning 10 games in 2019. He has the résumé to start for the Irish on his own right, and not solely because of the situation.

“We definitely added the right one in Jack,” Rees said. “He is an extremely mature kid. He’s worked his tail off to put him in a great position here at Notre Dame. He’s somebody that I’m eager to work with and pick his brain while also helping him understand what it means to play quarterback at Notre Dame and grasp this offense.”

Pyne has done little to impress and even less to distress. Clark is a distinct injury question moving forward. And Buchner has not played competitive football since 2019. Coan’s arrival was needed, and not only as a veteran as Rees lauded.

Buchner’s chance will come, and if he completes every pass this spring, then maybe that chance will indeed be in 2021, but that would be quite the meteoric rise, even if Rees feels like he has been recruiting Buchner “for 10 years.”

That recruitment gained steam after Buchner impressed at an on-campus camp, a moment that included some of the best quarterbacks in his class, intentionally so in Notre Dame’s setup.

“When we were in that camp situation, it was very clear to everybody, there was a competition,” Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said in December. “There were some quarterbacks in that class that knew, ‘I’m in here with three or four other guys and I’m trying to be the one that they offer in the class.’

“That is by design. We need to find out who’s going to rise up when they know they’re being evaluated and who’s going to compete. [Buchner] competed and he looked great. We never looked back.”

Notre Dame did not look back when much of the recruiting industry did after watching Buchner at the Elite 11 camp this past summer, his only public exposure since the 2019 season. The echo chamber amplified concerns about his throwing mechanics, a worry that could have been enough to scare off the Irish considering their most recent experience with a highly-recruited quarterback.

Rees would have none of it, by then the offensive coordinator and thus with more influence in how to handle a quarterback’s throwing motion.

“For me, it’s pretty much from the base, through the core and then making sure target line, eyes, body position are all set,” Rees said. “It is less about release point and more about making sure that we’re able to get the base correct, to get the target line right, work on the core, and then make sure we really get about to the shoulder and that’s for me where I tend to cut it off.”

After all, Buchner’s throwing motion served him well enough to earn scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, USC and Oregon.

“You don’t want to get into an area, unless it’s something really extreme, where you’re tinkering too much with how a kid’s thrown a ball his entire life,” Rees said. “He’s thrown the football the right way for 18 years to get himself to Notre Dame. I’m not talking Tyler here, I’m talking in generalities here.

“If we feel like there’s something that needs to be altered there, then we probably didn’t do our job in the evaluation period.”

If Buchner’s throwing motion proves to be nothing but a narrative, not a concern in the slightest, then perhaps the Irish will have a quarterback competition across these next 208 days. While that would serve the content machine greatly, don’t hold your breath.

That’s a nod to Coan, not a criticism of Buchner.

Somewhere in the shift to the early signing period, the Notre Dame coaching staff stopped offering snippets on each signee. The exercise was always filled with repetitive platitudes, but it did provide content when the time comes to discuss tight end Cane Berrong or receiver Jayden Thomas.

If that is the greatest loss, though, so be it. Less drama in February, the nascent offseason, is value-added.

Between the December signing period and last week’s nominal day, Polian did offer insights on three non-quarterback offensive players:

On tackle Joe Alt: “In our own data, that we were going to put out to the media today (in December), at one point we had listed (Joe Alt) at 240 and was playing tight end as a junior. Now you see he’s up 40 pounds, he’s 280, he moves great.”

On tackle Blake Fisher: “It’s worth mentioning Blake Fisher, the Mayor, running the chat between all the commits. For example, the job that they did with (consensus four-star linebacker) Prince Kollie — was a little bit thrown for a loop there by coach (Clark) Lea’s departure to Vanderbilt. The way they were, the way they revolved around him for a couple days and helped calm him down and be there for him and provide support as he was working through a change there. ...

“We can’t direct them to talk to anybody. That’s not within the rules. … I’ve had multiple guys tell us, once they got later in the process, maybe a guy that committed in the fall, maybe a guy that committed six-to-eight weeks ago, they talked about how welcoming that commit group was.”

On kicker Joshua Bryan, signed despite Jonathan Doerer returning for a gift of a fifth season: “I don’t want to count on a freshman. It’s not great. It’s hard to do. … In an ideal situation, you would like to have a guy on your campus for a year to hope to get them ready and get them prepared and help him to develop physically and get stronger. That allowed us to do that.

“Now this is one of those places where the relief from the NCAA as it relates to players in your program who’ve exhausted eligibility coming back to the original program, that guy does not count against your 85, so we were fortunate in this case. When we entered into the summer, my assumption was that we were going to have to identify a kicker that could come in here and do it as a true freshman. This is maybe one of the few instances where the circumstances of everything that was happening around us in the world might have helped us a little bit.”

In the smallest shock of the offseason, receiver Micah Jones entered the transfer portal on Monday morning. Jones’ only 2020 appearance came on Senior Day, a day in which the junior’s name was called out among the seniors leaving the Irish program.

In three seasons, he appeared in five games and never made a catch. While his heralded class of receiver recruits has not panned out yet as a whole (Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys), Jones has struggled even more than his counterparts. Recruited to be the next Miles Boykin, and enrolling only a few weeks after Boykin’s memorable Citrus Bowl-winning breakout touchdown, Jones never moved up Notre Dame’s depth chart. He spent his sophomore season entirely with the Irish scout team, for example.

Jones will graduate this spring with three years of eligibility remaining. While the transfer portal is already overflowing, a former four-star prospect still with physical size should catch the eye of some midmajors across the country.

Using Polian’s description of the NCAA relief regarding 2021’s scholarship count, and with only Doerer and defensive tackle Kurt Hinish qualifying as players who returned despite seemingly exhausting their eligibility, Notre Dame will need to get down to 87 scholarship players by September, and Jones’ departure lowers that count to 89.

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