’21 Outlook: Changing of the Guard at QB for Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame enters a pivotal off-season on the heels of their second, albeit brief, appearance in the College Football Playoffs.  The Fighting Irish have a new defensive coordinator, have to replace almost their entire starting offensive line, and perhaps most importantly, have to prepare a new starting quarterback.  Ian Book leaves as the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame football history leaving big shoes to fill for whoever takes over.  

Today we’re starting a position by position rundown of where the Notre Dame football roster is at and where it’s likely headed in 2021 following a lot of roster movement since the Rose Bowl loss to Alabama.  

Quarterbacks Out

  • Ian Book: 35 starts (30-5), 8,948 passing yards. 63.8%, 72 TDs, 20 INTs, 1,518 rushing yards, 17 TDs

Ian Book was one of the more polarizing winning quarterbacks in recent Notre Dame history.  Brian Kelly always talked about how Book was just a winner, and he was.  No one has won more games as a Notre Dame starting quarterback than Ian Book.  The problem was when Book didn’t win; it was always a big game on a big stage. Clemson 2018, Michigan 2019, Georgia 2019, The ACC Championship Game, Alabama in the Rose Bowl two weeks ago.  

This column isn’t meant to be a retrospective look into the career of Ian Book, though.  I tend to think of Book as underappreciated by many Notre Dame fans, but for the sake of this article, the point is Notre Dame is replacing a quarterback who has been their starter for basically the last three years.  Those are big shoes to fill regardless of your opinion of Book.  

The last notre dame quarterback to start for the Fighting Irish, not named Ian Book was Brandon Wimbush on November 10, 2018.  Since then, Book has started every game for Notre Dame and taken the lion’s share of all the live reps.  

Quarterbacks Returning

  • Brendan Clark (Jr): 0 starts, 29 passing yards, 40%, 1 TD
  • Drew Pyne (So): 0 starts, 12 yards, 66%, 0 TD

Brendan Clark and Drew Pyne are the two Notre Dame quarterbacks returning from the 2020 roster next year though there are some concerns over the status of Clark. The junior to be missed the final few games of 2020 after Brian Kelly revealed that a recurring knee issue had him sidelined. Some have speculated that there’s a chance the injury could impact his availability for 2021.

Pyne attempted only three passes in 2020, completing two of them for 12 yards without a touchdown or interception.  Before his injury, Clark completed just 1 of 3 attempts for 7 yards.  For his career, he’s only completed 2 of 5 attempts for 29 yards with a touchdown to Braden Lenzy in last year’s laugher versus New Mexico.

When healthy, Clark has the strongest arm of the returning Notre Dame quarterbacks and perhaps the strongest of any of the incoming ones. With questions surrounding his knee and his availability in 2021, though, what impact he’ll have in the quarterback competition is unclear.

Pyne served as Book’s backup over the final few games and even saw some brief action in the Rose Bowl when Book left briefly after getting shaken up.  He is built in the mold of Book – a smaller quarterback at 5-11.5 and 194 lbs.  He was the #225 overall rated prospect by 247 Sports in the class of 2019.  Rivals was the most bearish on his ratings at #118 overall.  Most fans forget that while Pyne might not be built like a Trevor Lawrence, he did have an offer from Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Penn State, among others.  

Quarterbacks Coming In

  • Jack Coan (5th, Wisconsin Transfer), 18 career D1 starts
  • Tyler Buchner (4-star recruit)
  • Ron Powlus III (3-star recruit)

Three quarterbacks are going to be added to the Notre Dame quarterbacks room between now and the summer.  The Fighting Irish picked up a significant graduate transfer from former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan. They also added two incoming freshmen in the class of 2021 – highly touted Tyler Buchner and lightly recruited Ron Powlus III.  

With the relative lack of experience coming back for Notre Dame, adding a graduate transfer quarterback seemed evident at the end of the season.  It didn’t take long for Notre Dame to do so either. Coan lost his starting job at Wisconsin because he got injured in camp and then got Wally Pipp’ed by Graham Mertz.  

In 2019, Coan completed nearly 70% of his passes for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns to 5 interceptions while guiding the Badgers to a 10-3 record.  He started for Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game against Ohio State and the Rose Bowl versus Oregon.  Coan brings experience that no one else can claim in the Notre Dame quarterback room.  

Coan lacks the mobility of Book but adds more pocket presence with a slightly better arm.  He doesn’t have a cannon, but he will add a bit more vertical passing threat than Book displayed.  While he isn’t as elusive as Book, he isn’t a statue in the pocket either.  He was a high school lacrosse player who originally committed to Notre Dame in that sport, so he has some mobility.  

Here’s an example of Coan’s pocket presence from an article Greg wrote right after Coan announced his transfer to Notre Dame.

Ron Powlus III, son of former Notre Dame quarterback and current Associate AD Ron Powlus, was a late signee in this year’s class surprising many.  Powlus was seen an insurance polciy for not just for Clark’s injury, but for any eventual transfer given the logjam of young quarterbacks on the roster.  Powlus had legit D1 offers from MAC programs so no one is envisioning him challenging for the job this year, but he is still a legit quarterback to fill out the depth chart for years.  

Tyler Buchner enrolls at Notre Dame in February and has been seen as the heir apparent at Notre Dame, but he will enroll with less experience than most prep quarterbacks.  He missed most of the 2018 season with injury and then didn’t play this fall, with the state of California pushing their high school season to the spring.  He played all of 2019 and lit up weak competition.

In 13 games in 2019, Buchner threw for 4,474 yards with 53 TDs to just 6 INTs. That was just through the air, though. Buchner was just as effective with his legs, rushing for 1,610 yards and another 28 TDs. Those are video game numbers.

Buchner was set to play against a higher level of competition this fall after transferring to Helix High School in La Mesa, CA.

Usually enrolling early helps quarterbacks, but given Buchner’s unique situation, it might not bring the typical advantage for Buchner. A good argument could be made that playing his senior season in the spring might have been more beneficial.  Still, Buchner has the kind of raw talent that isn’t coachable.  The kind of raw tools that Notre Dame either hasn’t had in its quarterback room or hasn’t been able to tap into when they’ve had similarly talented prospects – ala Phil Jurkovec.

One thing to note on Buchner, however, is that his throwing motion looked slightly altered in the spring at the Elite 11 camp which sent his recruit rankings tumbling. There have been reports since that Buchner just a bad week and has worked the kinks out that he displayed then with all his off-season training. 

Best Guesses As of Now

It’s hard to imagine that Jack Coan transferred to Notre Dame without thinking that he will start Labor Day weekend against Florida State when the 2021 Notre Dame football season kicks off.  Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees have made no promises, and there will be a competition, but Coan is the odds on favorite to win the starting job in 2021.  It would be a total shocker if Coan didn’t start. 

The only way that Coan doesn’t start against the Seminoles is if either Buchner or Pyne (or Clark if he’s healthy enough) has a ridiculous Spring and Fall camp and forces Kelly’s hand.  

There’s an argument that Notre Dame should start Buchner in 2021 if he shows enough in camp and then just live with the growing pains and plan for 2022.  On the other hand, Coan significantly raises the floor of the 2021 season for Notre Dame, even if he doesn’t significantly raise the ceiling.  

Coan has big-game experience and won’t flinch under the lights of Doak Campbell Stadium (assuming the 2021 schedule isn’t altered).  He’ll be able to help make up for an offensive line that will look very different from the one that paved the way for Notre Dame’s offensive success in 2020. He also showed at Wisconsin an ability to exploit the middle of the field more than we saw from Book throughout much of his career. 

If all goes as expected, Coan will be the opening night starter for the Fighting Irish in 2021 with Tyler Buchner waiting in the wings before assuming the reigns in 2022.  

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  1. You would think an ESPN article written on January 27th would include Jack Can in the mix at qb. Nada. Zip. Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne. No Jack Coan. Do just a little research. Google. Just sad.

  2. The starter has to be Coan unless something unforeseen happens. Doubtful to impossible that Buchner is ready. Pyne doesn’t look to have the juice, and Clark is an unknown.
    Powlus III better have a stronger throwing arm than daddy who was a really weak QB and never should have started for ND.

    Phil Jurkovec would have been great to have going into next year.

    But here’s the real rub. Does Notre Dame have proper coaching to develop QBs? Jurkovec was really good at BC this year. When did that next step take place. Could it have happened at ND? And so, can Coan improve at all here? If not Coan, can any of the other QBs develop?
    Can Tommy Reese, Kelly, and the staff retool the O Line and make it better? Frankly while great in most respects, I think the OL was overrated. Run blocking was great at times but inconsistent. Pass blocking, as has been the case for Kelly at ND, was very inconsistent and rarely did Book have the luxory to sit back like almost all the other Playoff QBs and wait for a receiver to get open.
    And that brings up receiver coaching. Will the receiving corps get coaches to learn how the little things to make the defensive backfield players miss coverage?

    QB will not make a difference unless the coaches check off most of the long list of details that need to be covered to compete again.

    Because another 10 win season and a “nice” bowl or a loss in the playoff just isn’t cutting it.

  3. It’s my understanding Powlus is a preferred walk-on, so no scollie given up for what amounts to a legacy member of the ND football family. Welcome aboard Ron, Jr!

  4. I remember watching Coan play. I think he can be really good. A bigger issue is can some of these receivers live up to their recruiting rankings a n d will Kelly play them Lenzy, KevinAustin, Jordan Johnson,Xavier Watts , Styles,Colzie. Notredame needs these players to step up. If this happens I think Notredames offense can be explosive a nd they can put up a lot of points no matter who they play.

  5. Nice article. Just a note: the comment about Pyne and Rivals having him rated #118 — you meant “bullish” when you wrote “bearish.”

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