CHICAGO – Notre Dame has become familiar with quarterback controversies and competitions during coach Brian Kelly's 12 seasons at the helm.
Kelly is so used to them that he was expecting a question about the position after this afternoon's 41-13 win over No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field. When it came, he had an analogy ready.
"It just attaches to my shoe like nothing else," the coach said, laughing.
Notre Dame was largely free of controversy at quarterback in 2019 and 2020 as Ian Book completed his quest to become Notre Dame's all-time winningest signal-caller. It seemed as though this season would be similarly quiet with Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan under center, but that possibility went out the window today.
Coan suffered what Kelly termed a "soft-tissue" injury to his leg after taking a sack in the third quarter against his former team. The injury kept him out the rest of the game and backup Drew Pyne, a redshirt freshman, went 6 for 8 for 81 yards and a touchdown in his first collegiate action outside of garbage time.
So, let the competition begin, right?
Not so much.
The No. 12 Irish ruled out any broken bones or a high-ankle sprain for Coan and Kelly is "pretty optimistic" the graduate student will be back next week against No. 8 Cincinnati – as the first-stringer.
"Jack Coan is our starter," Kelly said. "There's no question. If he's able and physically able, he'll be our starter against Cincinnati."
Still, Pyne made an impression during his relief appearance. He committed one turnover, getting hit from the blind side as he threw and losing a fumble, but he also tossed a 16-yard touchdown to wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. on a shallow post that mostly put the game away with 9:34 left.
Pyne, a former four-star recruit out of New Canaan, Connecticut, also completed a 22-yard strike to tight end Michael Mayer over the middle that set up Austin's touchdown. Maybe most importantly, he demonstrated some escapability from the pocket, avoiding the Wisconsin rush a few times and keeping his eyes downfield. By contrast, Coan was sacked five times, though he also had a couple of nice scrambles.
"Drew Pyne is a great example of what is, in my opinion, how we do our business in our program," Kelly said. "We bring in a transfer and he doesn't put his name in the portal. What he does is he says, 'You know what, I'm going to prepare myself to be the best version of Drew Pyne and when my number's called I'm going to be ready.' I see that every day in practice.
"When you see him prepare, you have that confidence you can put him in the game."
Despite Pyne's performance, it's still not entirely clear he is even the No. 2 quarterback on the roster. True freshman Tyler Buchner broke several big runs in a win over Toledo on Sept. 11 and also threw a pass to the flat that running back Chris Tyree turned into a 55-yard touchdown. He provides a ground dimension that neither Coan nor Pyne, despite the latter's decent athleticism, can give the Irish.
Buchner was unavailable this afternoon because of a tight hamstring, the same injury that limited him to just a handful of snaps last week against Purdue. Kelly believes the highly-touted recruit will be ready to play against the Bearcats in a week, though it's still uncertain how many reps he'll be able to take in practice before the game.
"I believe and feel really confident based upon talking to our medical people that Tyler will be a go for next week," the coach said.
Notre Dame might not have a quarterback controversy, but it does appear to have three players at the position with widely-differing skillsets that can make plays when called upon.