Tyler Buchner surges for Notre Dame during impressive Sunday bowl practice

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There was a suspicious vibe of gamesmanship to Marcus Freeman’s initial assertion last weekend that all three of Notre Dame’s remaining quarterbacks were in the running to be QB1 for ND’s Gator Bowl date with South Carolina.

Even when the Irish head coach eventually pared sophomore Ron Powlus IIIwho has yet to take a college snap, from the options.

But between true freshman Steve Angeli’s poise and progress and convalesced sophomore Tyler Buchner’s long layoff, the race to become starter-turned-portal plunger Drew Pyne’s replacement was kind of the blur Freeman purported it to be.

Until, bowl practice No. 4 for the Irish (8-4), on Sunday.

“I thought today was really one of his strongest practices he’s had in a couple of years here,” Irish offensive coordinator/QBs coach Tommy Rees said of Buchner. “He was really sharp today. He’s been smooth. There hasn’t been a ton of issues in terms of what we’re asking him to do.

“I’m proud of the way he stayed engaged and was able to kind of hit the ground running a little bit.”

The hope from the Irish coaching staff is that Buchner’s momentum carries through No. 21 Notre Dame’s Dec. 30 bowl clash with the 19th-ranked Gamecocks (8-4) in Jacksonville, Fla., and beyond, when Buchner competes in the spring with likely a transfer portal addition to try to permanently regain the No. 1 status with which he started the 2022 season.

Angeli, January mid-year enrollee Kenny Minchey and Powlus will be jostling for the optimum depth-chart pecking order in the spring. Pyne, ND’s starter for 10 games once Buchner suffered a left (non-throwing) separation on Sept. 10, will be battling for top QB status on someone else’s depth chart.

He entered the transfer portal, upon hearing of ND’s plans to add a QB through the portal, on Dec. 5.

“I love Drew Pyne,” Freeman said Saturday. “But part of that love for him was to say, ‘We’re possibly looking into the transfer portal to take a quarterback.’ I could have not told him, and lied and said we’re not going to take a quarterback. And waited until after the game and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to look for a quarterback.’ But that’s not what we’re built on.

“We’re built on real, authentic relationships and having those honest conversations. You know what? Drew made the best decision for Drew. I say it’s the best, because he made it. I love him. We’re so grateful for what he did for our program this year. I wish him all the best.

“But I’ll never go back and regret the conversation that we had about our plans moving forward. I can’t wait to see him thrive and do great things in college football this upcoming year. We all have to continue to move forward. My job is to make decisions and continue to evaluate what’s best for our football program. That’s what I’ll continue to do.”

Buchner, meanwhile, returns to an offense with no Michael Mayerthe junior All-America tight end who’s opted out of the Gator Bowl and into the NFL Draft, but with a vastly improved offensive line and running game than when he left the active roster.

He’ll also be facing a South Carolina defense that’s ranked far below nationally in total defense (79th out of 131 FBS teams) than the two teams he faced before suffering the injury — Ohio State (12th in total defense) and Marshall (10th) .

“When you’re able to run the ball and play with a really good front, it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback,” Rees said.

“He’s made some throws from the pocket the last couple days that were really impressive, but it’s more about his ability to say, ‘I’m gonna stay in here, maybe slightly move, and keep my eyes downfield.’ There’s some rust we’ve got to get off and some of the timing stuff with motions and communication issues. But we’ll continue to see how he progresses and see where he is in a week or so.”

Buchner completed 28 of 50 passes for 378 yards with two interceptions and no TDs before his season ended in the fourth quarter of a 26-21 upset loss to Marshall on Sept. 10. His 111.5 pass-efficiency rating was far below that of his freshman season, when he amassed a 142.7 rating in a part-time role behind 2021 starter Jack Coan.

Buchner’s running efficiency dropped off as well against the two elite defenses he faced in 2022. He ran for a net of 62 yards on 24 carries with two TDs after amassing 336 yards and three TDs on 42 carries as ND’s second-leading rusher in 2021.

Once Buchner got injured, he spent game days in the coaches’ box upstairs with Rees.

“He wasn’t wearing a headset, because that’s illegal. Let’s get that clear,” Rees said. “He was charting some of the stuff for the (graduate assistant coaches) in terms of play-call. He helped, because he always had his eyes where the quarterback’s eyes were supposed to be set.

“So if I needed an extra vantage point, he’d say (for example), ‘This is what it looked like (on the) front side,’ where the eyes were supposed to go. He was valuable there, because he hears the play-call, he’s able to look at the defense from the same vantage point. … So if we had an error, he was able to say ‘Well, the cornerback sloughed off,’ or something like that.”

Even though Angeli played in only seven game snaps spread over a couple of cameos this season, moving one spot up the depth chart in mid-September meant running the Notre Dame offense and getting 40 percent of those practice reps instead of running opposing teams’ offenses as the scout team QB.

“He’s got a little bit of quiet swagger to him, a confidence with which he plays,” Rees said of Angeli. “He’s pretty natural with movements and how the ball comes out of his hand. He’s innately accurate.

“You always look for silver linings when injuries and things occur. For Steve to be up with us all of the last 12 weeks, that’s critical for his development moving forward. Look, he probably would’ve been on scout team all year if that hadn’t happened.

“He had to be in every game-plan meeting. He had to be on the field, take reps—take reps for looks that he doesn’t even know. Learn from making mistakes, from making good plays. I think the ability to learn for him this year is so critical for his movement forward.”

The Irish move forward this coming week with final exams, meaning no practices until Saturday. They’ll also have a brief holiday break just ahead of their first on-site practice in Jacksonville on Dec. 26.

By then, the coaching staff will have learned much more about the post-injury version of Buchner.

“I think there’s like a really good grasp of the totality of what we’re trying to do offensively,” Rees said of the version they see now. “And I attribute some of that to him staying engaged throughout this whole 10- to 12-week process.”

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