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A brief but welcomed glimpse at 2021: Blue-Gold reaction

By Ashton Pollard | May 01
A brief but welcomed glimpse at 2021: Blue-Gold reaction
Tyler Buchner throws a pass at Notre Dame's annual Blue-Gold game on May 1, 2021. (Tribune Photo/Michael Caterina)

After weeks of edited video clips and limited media interaction, we finally got a two-hour glimpse into Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees and Marcus Freeman’s offseason work in the Blue-Gold game on Saturday afternoon.

With the teams split evenly, instead of pitting the starting offense against the starting defense as is typically done, the Blue team beat the Gold team 17-3. Surprisingly, Tyler Buchner led the only two touchdown drives on the day, while Jack Coan and Drew Pyne both showed their strengths and showed what work needs to be done between now and Sept. 5.

It’s difficult to take a lot away from a scrimmage that Kelly began by stating “You need to be patient because you’re not going to see a lot today,” but Irish fans got some answers.

Coan should start in Tallahassee, but Buchner’s potential is unlimited

Kelly has signaled he will not make a decision on the quarterback position until August, and Coan taking snaps in the fourth quarter on Saturday demonstrated that that may actually be the case. All three quarterbacks looked good at times. All three quarterbacks also made mistakes.

Coan opened the game with a beautiful pass to Joe Wilkins, and Notre Dame Twitter went wild. After a few more nice tosses, Coan threw an interception to Shayne Simon, and Irish fans were brought back down to earth. Coan finished the day 18 for 32 with 197 yards and an interception. Coan’s noticeable strength? His pocket presence and poise were beautiful. He handled pressure quite well. He’s been here before.

Pyne showed flashes of excitement, completing the longest pass of the day in a 41-yard toss to Lawrence Keys. Kelly and Rees started off more conservative with Pyne, as he dumped off several shorter throws instead of airing it out as Coan did on his first drive. Pyne threw for 146 yards and completed 11 of his 23 passes. He also threw an interception.

Buchner definitely made mistakes, at times seeming uncomfortable in the pocket and miscommunicating with receivers. He looked like an early enrollee who hasn’t played a game in over a year. But when he releases an on-target ball, wow, it’s pretty. It’s obviously a small sample size, but Buchner finished the day with a 197.3 passer rating after going 6 for 9 with 140 yards and a 7-yard rushing touchdown. Buchner has the fastest release in the quarterback room according to Kelly, and has a near flawless throwing motion.

Coan did not come to South Bend to be a backup, and he should start against Florida State in just over four months. But the first look at Buchner has me excited for what is to come in a year and four months.

Is Keys the guy?

Who will step up to fill the voids left by Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek? Six receivers caught passes on Saturday, showing there are still several options. But Keys separated himself from the pack as much as one could during a spring game. He led the Irish with five receptions for 115 yards, including that 41-yard reception from Pyne. He was targeted 14 times showing there still needs to be some communication work done with his quarterbacks, but flashes of big-play potential should excite Irish fans.

In addition to Keys, Braden Lenzy had five catches for 88 yards including a nice two-foot, NFL catch. He looked a lot less timid than he did in 2020, a good sign for a receiving corps that needs leadership.

TE2 by committee?

Michael Mayer did not see the field today, but the guys below him on the depth chart saw plenty of action. The favorite to be TE2 this season is George Takacs, but Takacs, freshman Cane Berrong (who played for both the Blue and Gold teams) and freshman Mitchell Evans all looked like formidable contenders for the spot Saturday afternoon. Evans caught each ball thrown his way with three receptions for 59 yards. Takacs caught three balls for 32 yards, and Berrong had 11 yards on two catches. Sophomore Kevin Bauman did not play.

Tommy Rees will use all of these options throughout the season, especially if clear wide receiver threats don’t emerge quickly. But will veteran Takacs or one of the younger members of the unit step to claim that second spot behind Mayer? Irish fans will have to wait a few more months to see.

O-Line U is alive and well

It’s been an awesome 24 hours for Notre Dame offensive lineman. After Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey were drafted on Friday night, the freshmen early enrollees showed up on Saturday. Replacing four of five offensive line starters with a unit that has a combined 32 career starts under their belt seems daunting, but it helps when you have Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler on your roster. Spindler’s most notable play on the day involved pulling running back Leo Albano across the goal line for a fourth quarter touchdown. How is this a kid that could still be in high school?

Zeke Correll is essentially locked in at center and Patterson will be somewhere on the line, but the competition leading into the season will be less worrisome and more interesting with both Fisher and Spindler fighting for spots against Florida State. Steve Elmer was the last true freshman to start for the Irish, beginning four games in 2013.

Football players not fitball players

“I tell them all the time. Let’s be football players, not fitball players,” Marcus Freeman said last week in reference to the switch from Clark Lea’s more complicated, zone-focused defense to Freeman’s more simplistic, man-heavy defense. No one really thought there would be a huge drop off in Freeman’s first year, but Saturday provided some extra assurance.

The defense was absolutely flying around on Saturday. Shayne Simon and freshman Justin Walters each had an interception, and NaNa Osafo-Mensah forced a fumble. Nine players had sacks, and the defenses finished the day with 18 tackles for loss. The third and fourth down defense stepped up big, as the offenses went 5-21 on third down and 1-5 on fourth down. All of this was without Kyle Hamilton on the field.

The defense is going to be just fine.