Things We Learned: Notre Dame still good, ‘not good enough’
The marching orders for a spring practice should be very clear: Do not overreact to any performance by any player in any circumstance. But when the only two touchdown drives of Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game are led by the early-enrolled, highly-touted freshman quarterback who had not played in a game in nearly 18 months, there may be little other choice.
Tyler Buchner is still not an integral part of the Irish quarterback competition this offseason — Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan pulled a bit further ahead in his battle with sophomore Drew Pyne — but Buchner’s 6-of-9 day for 140 yards and a rushing touchdown was the defining performance of the day and perhaps of Notre Dame’s entire spring.
But to reiterate, do not overreact, and Buchner is not yet pushing for playing time.
“He took a big step in terms of his growth,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after Saturday’s spring finale ended 17-3, for whatever that score is worth. “He was given more of an opportunity, obviously, by being live, and I thought he took advantage of it. He had some really good throws down the field. …
“We’re never going to close the door on one that can help our offense be a better offense. We’re not going to say, ‘Well, Tyler’s a freshman, you can’t play.’ Tyler Buchner, if you can help our football team, we’ll find any role for somebody that can help us.”
Buchner handled the moment just fine in front of a few thousand fans. Both his first two drives ended in touchdowns, something neither Coan nor Pyne achieved even once. If Buchner’s performance is a harbinger for things to come in 2022 or 2023, Notre Dame should be encouraged.
That is the proper reaction, though. Buchner’s showing proved he has a solid foundation that should reap rewards in years to come, but not this year.
This year remains Coan’s to lead.
While there are 65 Power Five teams, and thus 65 starting Power Five quarterbacks, there are not 65 players who belong as starting Power Five quarterbacks. Coan does. Early and often he showed both an ability and a want to push the ball downfield. Finishing 18-of-32 for 197 yards and an interception when working without his best target (sophomore tight end Michael Mayer sat out as a precaution) and a running back that will be a threat in the aerial game (sophomore Chris Tyree was on Pyne’s half of the roster) is a decent day.
Coan’s very first pass attempt set a tone, connecting with senior receiver Joe Wilkins down the sideline for 32 yards. His arm strength is as advertised, even if that was not realized when Coan announced his transfer in January. His progressions appeared quick and decisive.
“We want to see decision making, we want to see management of the game, we want to see how the quarterbacks handle themselves in the pocket, out of the pocket,” Kelly said. “What kind of throws they’re making, on platform throws, some of the things that they need to work on.”
If that was the checklist, Coan ticked off each item.
The truest blessing of the Irish spring, though, is that Pyne ticked off each item, too.
A stat line of 11-of-23 for 146 yards and an interception is underwhelming, but he looked equally comfortable in the offense. If Buchner had merely shown Pyne’s poise, then Notre Dame would have been thrilled with its youngest quarterback. Pyne’s lack of hype, however, diminishes that response for no other reason than that is how these things go.
For once, the Irish can leave spring practice confident in their quarterbacks. The starter may not be a Heisman dark horse, but the drop-off to his backup will be less than it has been in years, and a third capable passer will be around, as well. That is not the luxury expected from a position ripe for scrutiny, but it is a luxury, nonetheless.
Notre Dame’s offensive line remains in flux, a natural byproduct of a spring finale that inevitably invites sacks, and one compounded by the potential starters being mixed and matched on two separate teams. Listening to the NBC broadcast with a trained ear, Paul Burmeister’s and Corey Robinson’s praise of early-enrolled freshmen Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler made it apparent the Irish coaching staff had built up that duo in pregame production meetings. That hint alone makes it increasingly likely at least one of the two will start on Labor Day Eve.
Questions remain aplenty along the offensive line, perhaps intentionally so. Not having senior Jarret Patterson available this spring made it so Notre Dame would never have its five best linemen together no matter what permutation was tried.
“We have work to do, but we’re going to get there,” Kelly said. “Having days like today allows us to not fool ourselves into saying we’re this finished product. We’ve got work to do. Today allows us to evaluate much more clearly about where we need to go to be a championship football team.”
A championship football team remains the Irish goal, as it should, but the gap in January remains the gap in May, one exacerbated by Monday’s news of sophomore receiver Jordan Johnson’s impending transfer. Notre Dame does not have the exterior playmakers to compete with the best teams in the country.
Senior Lawrence Keys established himself as a starter this spring, adding a second piece to fifth-year Avery Davis, and pairing them with Mayer will be enough for a functional offense. But even Keys’ emergence did not suggest bona fide explosiveness in September.
“They’re capable of doing it,” Kelly said. “We’re going to stay the course. When they get there, they will ascend to the level that we need them to play at. We’re enjoying the process with them. They’re 100 percent all-in. I thought they flashed today, but we’ve got some work to do with details.”
Obviously, the Irish defense played Saturday, as well, and getting a look at new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme was worthwhile, but Notre Dame kept that scheme to its bare bones to have a more genuine look at the offense. The Irish did not try to disguise coverage to fool a quarterback, did not try to use line stunts to confound young linemen and did not send all-out blitzes to tag passers in red jerseys.
However, fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s quickness off the edge did stand out. He always wanted to play defensive end rather than defensive tackle, he lost the weight to make the move, and Notre Dame had the interior depth to accommodate it. After Saturday, that position switch looks to be a win for everyone involved.
The praise of Tagovailoa-Amosa all spring was not hyperbole. His success on the edge will not only help depth concerns there, keeping senior Justin Ademilola’s legs that much fresher, but it will also bolster the performances of the young pair on the other side of the line. Opponents may have hoped to avoid junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho, but that option disappears with Tagovailoa-Amosa (and Ademilola) such a viable pass-rushing threat.
Four Irish defensive ends have been drafted in the last two years, yet Notre Dame will still have an imposing defensive line in 2021. There may be no greater testament to the program’s floor than that, a floor then raised by Coan’s arm strength and Buchner’s ease. All that instilled confidence considered, the ceiling is still not as high as Kelly wants.
“We’re a good team, and good teams are not good enough,” Kelly said. “We want to be a great team. Good teams don’t win a national championship. We need to be a great team. So, how do we get from good to great? That’s where we are in this process.”
In other words, a successful (and healthy) spring practice did not change where Notre Dame was on New Year’s Day, not that it should have been expected to.