NOTRE DAME, Ind. - To some (maybe many) who Notre Dame’s starting quarterback would be this season was a foregone conclusion. The quarterback derby between junior Drew Pyne and sophomore Tyler Buchner always felt like it was just a matter of time before Buchner was crowned the starter more than it was a true competition.
Fighting Irish head coach Marcus Freeman announced the anticipated news early Saturday afternoon, shortly after his team concluded its eighth fall training camp practice.
“(It was) an extremely tough decision,” Freeman began. “One that me and (Offensive Coordinator Tommy) Rees spent an enormous amount of time talking about. It’s not a seven-practice decision. This is something that we kind of looked at last year, we looked at the spring, we looked at the summer and the start of fall camp and the entire body of work. We just felt like it was time. It was time to give the offense clarity on who’s gonna be the starting quarterback. “
Buchner gets the nod after playing in 10 games as a true freshman in 2021. He completed 60-percent of his 35 pass attempts, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. His most valuable asset as a freshman was his running ability. Buchner ran for 336 yards on 46 carries (7.3 YPC), with three touchdown runs.
“We just think that Tyler brings an element, obviously, a dynamic element with his feet,” Freeman said. “The ability to extend plays, to have a QB running game – that really kind of added into this decision.”
Pyne played in just two games as a sophomore last fall, but they were important appearances in relief of Jack Coan. He came off the bench to go 6 for 8 for 81 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Austin to help the Irish beat Wisconsin.
He played again a week later against Cincinnati when Coan struggled in the first half, and Pyne completed 9 of 22 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in Notre Dame’s only loss of the regular season.
The official announcement of Buchner over Pyne comes just a little more than a week into training camp, but it’s an evaluation process that has been going on for several months. Rees said he has been evaluating the “full body of work” of both signal callers, going all the way back to last season.
“It was a very hard decision,” Rees explained. “You have two kids that are working very hard to accomplish a goal. Drew has been the best Drew Pyne he’s been since he’s been at Notre Dame, which is a huge credit to him.
“We felt like Tyler gives us the best chance,” Rees continued. “To point to one moment, we had a practice a couple days ago where we probably felt like ‘Ok, this is what it’s gonna look like and this is where we can operate at our best’. We made the decision as a staff and as a group and we’re full steam ahead.”
There is no bad blood between Buchner and Pyne. The latter gushed just a week ago about how much time he has spent with Buchner in the film room and how close the two have become since Buchner arrived on campus as an early enrollee in the spring of 2021.
“Luckily, throughout this whole time, I’ve had an amazing friend and competitor in Drew Pyne,” Buchner said of his teammate. “Every single day, he pushes me to get better. He pushes me to spend more time in the building (and) watch film with him. We compete every single day in practice, and he’s worked unbelievably hard. I couldn’t be happier to have him on this team.”
As a first-time Head Coach with a background in defense, Freeman has entrusted most of the offensive decisions to Rees since he became head coach. But he did share with Rees his top-3 criteria for whoever the next Irish quarterback would be.
“Number one are they making the correct decisions,” said Freeman. “Number two, you’ve got to take care of the football. We can turn the ball over. We’ve got to take care of the football. And then three, you gotta make plays, and who’s making plays. There’s a huge criteria, I’m sure, Coach Rees has in terms of how he evaluates those guys, but those are the three things that I really, really look for.”
Rees has worked with Buchner for roughly 20 months since the sophomore arrived on campus in the middle of what would have been his senior year of high school. His arrival came after the pandemic canceled what would have been his senior season. Rees narrowed down what he is now looking for from Buchner as he works toward what will be his first career start.
“I think the word we’ve preached all camp is confidence,” Rees explained. “I think Tyler is finding his stride, right now. We’re going to continue to have an extremely confident and calm quarterback. I think we’ll just continue to build toward consistency and leadership. Those are the traits that we want to continue to come out in him.
“I think part of this decision is to allow him to have that platform to really not be apprehensive about every play and every decision,” Rees continued. “It allows him the freedom to go out there and operate, knowing that this team has his back and we’re ready to move forward.”
As one would hope, Buchner is one of the smartest players on the Fighting Irish roster. Freeman doesn’t spend every minute of his time as a first-year head coach in the quarterback room, but when he is Buchner’s aptitude is readily apparent.
Freeman calls him an “alpha” in the room. He’s the one who is always the first to answer quickly when a question is asked. It’s that preparation that Buchner believes will allow him to be the best version of himself when he takes the field this season.
“When I play the best is when I’m out there, you know I like to think to myself and say I’m just balling,” Buchner explained. “Just playing ball. I think that thought process or that mindset of just going out there and balling is something that comes from preparing and being so confident and being so prepared that you don’t have to do any thinking. It’s almost subconscious at that point. So, it’s about preparing to get myself to that level as much as I possibly can and then being consistent.”
Buchner's first chance as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback will come exactly three weeks to the day that the world heard the news that he earned the starting job. It comes on the road in “The Horseshoe” at Ohio State against the No. 2 team in the country.
A hostile environment, to be sure, but Rees is not concerned.
Buchner may have been a “package” quarterback last year, but that 10 games of experience was valuable. Rees rattled off big moments, like the three quarters Buchner played in a night game at Virginia Tech, and in an important situation in another night game vs North Carolina last season, that Buchner has in the bank.
“This isn’t a guy who hasn’t played,” Rees said. “This isn’t a guy who hasn’t played in big moments, and I think a lot of the confidence we have in the staff started last year and has continued to build in the last nine months.”
Buchner now bears the title of one of the most prestigious monikers in college sports: Notre Dame starting quarterback. Names like Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, Tony Rice, Rick Mirer, and Brady Quinn come to mind at the utterance of the phrase.
“I don’t know if it’s completely hit me yet, but it’s a blessing and I’m really thankful and blessed to be in this position,” Buchner said of being named Notre Dame’s QB1. “My teammates have been awesome in supporting me, the coaching staff for believing in me. It’s a pretty surreal feeling.”
And in three weeks, Buchner hopes to be “balling” in his first career start at Ohio State.
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