Although the return of college football is about 9 months away, a battle for the starting quarterback position at Notre Dame is soon to be underway. The two contenders, Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne, both made contributions to the 2021 team, albeit in much different capacities. A question I have moving forward is if the program will be better served if the competition carries over into fall camp, or if it would be better for one player to grab the starting role as quickly as possible.
First, I am only taking into account Buchner and Pyne in this equation. I do not believe that Ron Powlus III or Steve Angeli will factor into the starting quarterback position during the 2022 season. If either player were to receive substantial playing time, 2022 is probably a wash and it is safe to assume major injuries and/or transfers have occurred.
Based on his contributions in 2021, Tyler Buchner appears to be the presumed starter for the 2022 season for the Irish. Last season, he appeared in 10 games, completing 21/35 passes for 298 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also contributed 358 yards rushing with 3 touchdowns. While Buchner performed adequately in his role as a change of pace option last season, he did not appear to be able to run the full offense for most of the season. When taking into account that Buchner missed his entire senior season of high school football due to COVID-19 and was playing catch-up in the quarterback room the moment he arrived on campus, the role he played last season does make some sense. Buchner held up well in his only extended action of the season when he was pressed into duty for almost the entirety of the Virginia Tech contest.
Moving forward, Buchner’s biggest hurdle appears to be his accuracy and throwing mechanics, which were scrutinized heavily prior to his arrival in South Bend. His 58.3% completion percentage last year simply isn’t going to take Notre Dame to where they want to go. Those around the football program remain encouraged with his progress, but Buchner must continue to show steady improvement during the spring and fall. In this day and age, being a sophomore quarterback with little experience is not an excuse for poor play as we have seen the likes of Trevor Lawrence, CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, and others play at an extremely high level as young players in college football. However, it is in the program’s best interest for Buchner to become the unquestioned starter for the program for a variety of reasons. First off, Buchner is a true dual-threat quarterback and the most successful programs of late have had similar type players leading their offenses. Buchner has the chance to lead the program for two years minimum before he could leave for the NFL (I think it is in everyone’s best interest if this were the case). Second, Buchner assuming the starting mantle is proof that Tommy Rees is capable of evaluating and developing talented quarterbacks, which should only further serve to bolster recruiting at the position moving forward. One of Notre Dame’s biggest issues has been the lack of dynamic quarterback play for years. The only way to start attracting top-tier talent is to prove that the program has the ability to develop talented recruits into high NFL draft picks.
The challenger to Buchner is Drew Pyne. Pyne often gets overlooked and is viewed as a much less talented quarterback despite the fact that Pyne held a 4-star composite ranking from 247Sports, the same as Buchner. Buchner did hold a slight edge with a 0.964 average rating, whereas Pyne came in at a 0.916. The point is that Pyne is not some walk-on quarterback. Although less physically gifted than Buchner, Pyne appeared much more decisive and confident in his reads during his limited playing time during the season. Pyne also displayed the ever-elusive “moxie” that we so often look for in quarterbacks. When he was forced to enter the Wisconsin game due to Jack Coan’s injury, Pyne displayed a massive amount of poise in being able to bounce back from a vicious strip-sack on one of the first snaps he took to help rally the Irish for a major win. Against Cincinnati, Pyne was informed a few minutes before the second half kicked off that he was going to be the starter. On the whole, Pyne performed well above what a typical 3rd-string quarterback would have in a similar spot. One could even argue the team would have won that game had he started for the entirety of the contest. Pyne also appears to be one of the more respected players in the locker room as multiple teammates expressed their confidence in him throughout the season, as well as on the field when he played. There is something to be said for a quarterback in his position last year to have commanded that type of response from his teammates.
Pyne does not possess the arm strength that Buchner does but is much more accurate with his throws and still possesses the ability to run when the situation dictates it. If Pyne were to emerge as the starting quarterback it would speak volumes about his mastery of the playbook and ability to keep the offense moving, similar to Ian Book. However, one would have to think that as much as it would say about Pyne it would also be a very damning read about Buchner’s ability. Therein lies the double-edged sword to this entire battle. Pyne winning most likely means that Buchner was either an overrated prospect or is lagging in his development. As much as Pyne winning the job would represent a win for talent development, Pyne doesn’t appear to be a guy that has the ceiling to play on Sundays, which ultimately is not going to inch the Irish closer to winning a national championship.
If either quarterback were to win the position outright in spring, this would most likely lead to better continuity for fall camp and the season as the entire team would get used to one player leading the team. The offense would theoretically be better served this way as the entire operation would get more reps together to nail down their timing and spacing. However, this leaves open the very real possibility that the loser of the battle would enter the transfer portal which could be very damaging for the program. If Buchner were to win, the program would still like to have Pyne around as an insurance policy in case Buchner’s sustains an injury and stalls in his development in fall. Pyne has shown that he is capable of stepping in to lead the offense whether there is injury or Buchner’s progress stalls. If Pyne were to win outright in spring, one would think that Buchner would immediately begin looking for a new home to get him on the field for the 2022 season. Buchner leaving would not be a great look for the program as it would continue the narrative that Notre Dame is unable to develop talented quarterbacks.
If the quarterback battle continues into the fall, there is a greater chance that both players remain on the roster for the 2022 season. The fear is that if one player is unable to separate themselves throughout spring and much of fall camp there will be a lack of leadership from the position. While both players will undoubtedly command the respect of their teammates, things seem to flow better when there is a defined starting quarterback. I personally am not a fan of a two-quarterback system and believe there are many drawbacks to employing it with a team. The longer the battle continues, the greater the chances of it carrying over into the season or leading to a rotation. As we saw this year, things became quite predictable when Buchner would spell Coan, and the offense took off once Coan handled almost the entirety of the snaps. Rarely do you see a successful team employ a two-quarterback system, as most of the top-tier programs have an unquestioned “dude” as their starter.
Ultimately, I believe that the best option for Notre Dame moving forward would be for Tyler Buchner to seize the starting role as early as he can. This means that Buchner has continued to improve his throwing mechanics and accuracy, which will make him a true dual-threat quarterback when coupled with his running abilities. The theoretical ceiling is much higher with Buchner than Pyne. If Pyne decides to transfer as a result, no one should hold any ill will towards him. The staff will then be tasked with getting Powlus III and Angeli to a point where they can step in if needed. Regardless, it should be a fascinating next number of months to see how everything shakes out on the field.