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Notre Dame Football

Irish Offense “Ready to Roll” with QB Tyler Buchner Back Under Center

December 30, 2022
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Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner will return to the starting lineup on Friday when the No. 21 Irish face No. 19 South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. 

It will mark 112 days since he suffered an AC sprain to his left shoulder in a 26-21 loss to Marshall. A few days later, the sophomore signal-caller had surgery and coach Marcus Freeman declared him likely out for the remainder of the 2022 season. 

But Buchner rehabbed quicker than anticipated and the opportunity to start presented itself once quarterback Drew Pyne surprised the Notre Dame coaching staff by entering the transfer portal on Dec. 3 and committing to Arizona State shortly thereafter. 

Despite missing so much time due to his shoulder injury, Freeman says Buchner has progressed significantly during bowl prep.

“After 14 practices, I think he's ready to roll,” Freeman said. “He's been magnificent in practice.”

Buchner also continued to develop as a quarterback even while injured. He was still able to throw over the last few months since he injured his non-throwing shoulder. During games, he also sat in the coach’s booth to help chart plays and even provided Pyne with feedback when appropriate. 

Yet the biggest aspect of Buchner’s development goes behind his accuracy, athleticism or understanding of the offense.

“He's done a great job of leading the offense, which to me it's not just throwing the ball,” Freeman said. “When you're the quarterback at Notre Dame, it’s about gaining the confidence of those guys around you. You're the leader of that group. I think he's done a good job of continuing to earn the trust of these guys that are surrounding him in that offensive huddle.”

Still, Buchner will have to do without the security blanket he and Pyne leaned on throughout the season. Michael Mayer, who led the Irish in receiving with 67 catches for 809 yards and nine touchdowns, opted out of the Gator Bowl in order to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft.

A large portion of Mayer’s catches came on third down this season, often enabling the offense to move the chains and sustain drives. 

“You lose that crutch, right?” Freeman said. “At some points, when in doubt, you throw the ball to 87. Well, he's not out there.”

With Mayer out and a depleted tight end room, the Notre Dame offense will turn to its talented-yet-unproven wide receiver corps. Outside of senior Matt Salerno, who’s a former walk-on, each receiver was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and Freeman says they’ve started to live up to their potential in preparation for South Carolina. 

“It's been good to see those guys in practice,” Freeman said. “Listen, we've had a lot of competitive situations. That's kind of been the focus for me for this bowl prep is saying, ‘Let's go good on good. Nowadays, with opt-outs, guys not playing, you don't know what you're going to see. You don't. This game is going to be about our preparation, what we do.

“You've been able to see our wideouts compete against our DBs, ones versus ones in competitive situations. They're doing a really good job, and I'm excited to see them play tomorrow.”

One player the Irish are hoping to see emerge in the passing game is sophomore wideout Lorenzo Styles. He broke out in the Fiesta Bowl last season with eight catches for 136 yards and a touchdown but had an up-and-down season this fall. 

If he can have another big game on Friday, it will provide the Irish with a much-needed offensive boost and give Styles confidence heading into the offseason.

“He’s been great,” Freeman said. “A lot of those guys have been getting a lot of good reps. From Lorenzo Styles to all those wide receivers. He’s had a really good bowl prep.’

The same can be said for freshman Tobias Merriweather, whose lone catch this season was a 41-yard touchdown reception against Stanford. Despite his limited experience, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees says Merriweather has really taken advantage of extra practice reps ahead of the Gator Bowl. 

“He’s got back into a role and he’s a guy we can count on,” Rees said. “He understands where he needs to be and how to go execute. Obviously, things were sputtered a little bit towards the end of the season, but Tobias is someone we have big plans for.”

Of course, it won’t matter how good Buchner’s receivers are if he doesn’t play better than he did in his first two starts.

Against Ohio State and Marshall, he completed 28 of his 50 pass attempts (56%) for 378 yards and two interceptions while throwing zero touchdown passes. 

Part of the reason he struggled was poor offensive line play. The young quarterback was hit early and often when dropping back to pass. But over the course of the season, the line has become one of the top units in the nation and should do a much better job of protecting him. 

The Irish also struggled to run the ball in Buchner’s two starts, averaging just 103.0 yards per game. Buchner was actually the team’s leading rusher in both games. 

That shouldn’t be the case against the Gamecocks. The Irish have averaged 198.7 yards per game in the 10 games since with both Logan Diggs and Audric Estime rushing for more than 725 yards this season.

“South Carolina is good on defense, especially the back end of the year, they started playing well,” Rees said. “They have a good front and they do enough up front that causes some challenges. They have good backers that have some speed. We have our work cut out for us. 

“Anytime you can run the ball, it takes the pressure off the quarterback. Obviously, that’s something we’ve leaned on and we have to find ways to run against a good defense.”

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