Just one week after Notre Dame opened up fall practice the Irish have a new starting quarterback. Initial camp reports detailed a competitive race between former Wisconsin signal-caller Jack Coan and junior Drew Pyne, but this was all but Coan’s job to lose from the moment the transfer was announced back in January. Ian Book has left behind large shoes to fill as the driver of the offense and Coan will be crucial to rebuilding an Irish offense that lost seven starters to the NFL. For a quick recap on the analytics we use in these articles, please follow this link to our analytics primer. No shame if you’re re-visiting that page again for a refresher after last season, it has been a long time but we are excited to be back!
The most important of those seven starters was by far Ian Book, the engine of the Irish offense the last three years. Book generated 53.44 EPA last season, averaging 0.19 EPA/Pass. He was also lethal with his legs averaging 0.19 EPA as well as a 52% success rate, leading to a career high 6 rushing touchdowns. 3rd Down is where he really did his damage, leading the Notre Dame offense to 0.43 EPA/Play and a 42% 3rd Down Conversion Rate when throwing. For context, both these numbers are well higher than Alabama’s legendary 2020 offense, which racked up 0.25 EPA/play, 31% first downs picked up when passing. All of this combined to make Ian Book well deserving of the ninth place Heisman finish he earned last season. After Book departed for the NFL, Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees addressed the quarterback situation with Jack Coan, a fifth year senior who unceremoniously lost his Wisconsin starting job to Graham Mertz while recovering from a foot injury.
So what are the Irish getting? We’ll start with the harsher reality: Jack Coan has not reached that level of play Irish fans have become used to from Ian Book in his career, although he may have been a victim of a scheme that capped his potential and his advanced numbers are not far off. Coan played eighteen games under center for the Badgers, including a 12-2 2019 season that saw Wisconsin come up one point short against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Coan posted a 77.0 PFF grade in 2019, indicating strong QB play that was even slightly better than Ian Book’s 2020 campaign. His EPA statistics were not far off either, posting 0.16 EPA/passing play just shy of Book’s 0.19. While I do not believe Coan would have been likely to play at Ian Book’s level last season, it is encouraging that some outlets believe Coan can step into Book’s shoes right away.
The concern right now is the potential for heavy 3rd Down regression. Offensive performance on 3rd Down generally isn’t sustainable year-to-year because it is so high variance and great offenses win on 1st and 2nd Down so they don’t have to rely on 3rd Down for the majority of their success. As mentioned above, Alabama was rather average last year on 3rd Down and Oklahoma was actually one of the worst teams, averaging negative passing EPA on 3rd Down.
To Book’s credit, having a mobile quarterback can increase the potential for elite 3rd Down production, as being able to pick up 7+ yards with your legs can prevent defenses from consistently dropping eight men in coverage. This is where the drop off from Book to Coan could be most evident. Coan isn’t a statue like present-day Tom Brady in the pocket, but he’s nowhere near as dynamic as Book as a rusher. That’s potentially a positive in terms of Coan being more willing to stay in the pocket and go through his progressions than Book. But that also means the heroics Book provided, often with his legs, could completely disappear. That could significantly hurt the Notre Dame offense should it continue to be run-heavy on early downs and be forced into as many 3rd and long situations as lsat year.
One area where Coan could improve on Book is adding a deep ball to the Irish attack. We often complained that the Irish were not aggressive enough in pushing the ball downfield last year, and although Book was more aggressive than his 6.8 average depth of target number from 2019, he ended last season with a still modest 8.5 yard aDOT. This scheme will be no issue for Coan as he arrives from one of the few programs more committed to power football as Notre Dame. During Wisconsin’s 12-2 campaign in 2019, Coan’s average depth of target was just 7.5 yards, but this was not due to poor performance.
Despite the lack of deep attempts, Coan was quite good when he did let it rip. He completed 50% of throws over 20 yards downfield, and 61.1% of throws between 10-19 yards. In Book’s outstanding 2020 campaign he completed just 29% of throws over 20 yards and 51.9% of throws between 10-19 yards. Coan is certainly comfortable running the conservative passing style the Irish like to lean on after years at Wisconsin, but he has the potential to throw the deep ball in a way Ian Book never fully showed. We’ll be watching early to see if this manifests, and if Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin, or Avery Davis will be the one entrusted to run these deep routes, in addition to the potential for increased play-action frequency.
Pro Football Focus ranked Jack Coan 32nd out of the 130 FBS starting quarterbacks in advance of this season, two spots behind former Irish QB Phil Jurkovec and six spots behind his Wisconsin replacement Graham Mertz. This feels fair, especially since Coan will take his first snap in almost two years against Florida State. But if Tommy Rees taps into Coan’s ability to throw the deep ball and some of the wide receivers take steps forward, it is easy to see a world where Coan outperforms this ranking.