Tyler Buchner entered 2021’s Blue/Gold game carrying all the lofty and unrealistic expectations that the Notre Dame fanbase could muster. The early enrollee hadn’t played a snap of football in two years–one due to an ACL injury, another due to a COVID-cancelled season. He carried little more than his four-star recruiting evaluation into Notre Dame stadium, yet the snaps he would take were more anticipated than the two QBs that Brain Kelly named in the battle for starting quarterback.
Jordan Johnson entered 2021’s Blue/Gold game carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His impact on the 2020 season began and ended on the same snap against USF. The five-star decided on a Blind Side tribute in his blocking which drew a 15-yard personal foul. Kelly gave Johnson the kiss of death in his post-game presser, mentioning the “traits” he needed to develop to see the field again. His official profile lists only one other bullet point during the 2020 season: “Saw action in the 45-31 win at Boston College (11/14).”
Even the most level-headed of Irish fans found themselves tantalized by Tyler Buchner’s 6-9, 140 yard day. In a game largely dominated by defense, he scored the game’s first touchdown–with his feet. He started the second half by taking, and converting, multiple 20+ yard shots downfield which included back-to-back completions to speedster Braden Lenzy. For Irish fans starving for a more explosive offense, especially after watching one from Alabama bulldoze them in the “Rose” Bowl, the change was welcomed with open arms, all-caps tweets, and, in my case, a particular Seinfeld GIF.
If you blinked, you may have missed the lone target that Jordan Johnson had thrown his way in Saturday’s scrimmage. That pass fell incomplete. Despite kind words offered by Brian Kelly and teammate Kyren Williams after the game, Johnson announced on Monday that he intended to end his Irish career with zero career receptions.
Nothing is written in stone as of yet. Johnson could pull his name back out of the transfer portal and don the blue and gold in 2021, but that seems as likely as Brian Kelly naming Tyler Buchner the starting QB against Florida State.
It’s easy to read far too much into a glorified practice and give Buchner all kinds of glowing accolades. He clearly has a special spark. While BK said before the game that what we saw on the field would be competitive situations–not a preview of what this team would look like or play like in 2021. Buchner absolutely didn’t have the keys for the full playbook, might have been asked to not audible, the defense wouldn’t go full exotic on him, and he didn’t have to throw against Kyle Hamilton who sat out the entirety of the game due to injury. That all being said, if that’s what Tyler can look like when the coaching staff just wants him to knock off a couple years of rust, the reality easily fades away as we await Buchner to be the next best thing that BK clearly isn’t starting because he’s stubborn.
After all, the same exercise applies to Johnson, just in reverse. Don’t read into the lack of targets in the game. Ignore the clearly blown assignment on a play specifically drawn up for him. Johnson has those five-stars we’ve desperately craved–just put them on the field! It worked for Mayer. It worked for Tyree. It appears to work for practically every Alabama and Clemson freshmen receiver too! Clearly, something is rotten within the coaching staff if that obvious talent can’t crack the depth chart in an obvious position of need.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that we as fans are always far too tantalized by the potential of all of our young guns. No one really wants the cold shower of reality that recruiting evaluations can miss, players bust, and the school that seemed to be the perfect fit is anything but. We see a small percentage of what Kelly and company see on a day-to-day basis, both on and off the field. Depth chart decisions aren’t made in a vaccuum.
After over a decade in the BK-era, it’s surprising how much internet angst squarely focuses on the coaching staff for “failing” to just put the kids on the field. History, especially recent history, has shown us otherwise. If someone is ready, they see the field and it doesn’t even matter what you’ve done for him lately–just ask Brandon Wimbush who had to give way to the younger Ian Book (someone who, by the way, didn’t exactly have the same recruiting hype as Wimbush did).
Attrition is part of a healthy football program. Granted, it sucks when it happens, but feel free to list off the transfers that have just lit it up and proven Kelly and company wrong in their decisions. If any blame lies at their feet is missing on their own evaluations of talent and projections of fit within the program. I remember similar gnashing of teeth over the running back position which, I think it’s safe to say, isn’t a problem right now.
For all we know, despite the Blue/Gold game flashes, Tyler Buchner could find himself in a similar Jurcoveck situation and heads elsewhere to maximize his potential playing time. Meanwhile, we all begin salivating over the next hot-shot QB prospect that commits to the Irish and start the cycle anew. Jordan Johnson could be the first BK-era transfer to really make it hurt, especially in this current era of being immediately eligible.
The potential and possibilities are limitless. At the end of the day, each of these kids believes in their own potential as much as we do when we see the stars next to their names. Reaching said potential is limited by time and roster space. There’s nothing that can be done about the former, but the later is in their control, both in performance on the field and the choice of which roster to compete for.
It’s not even a complex calculus for these players to figure out how to maximize their opportunity. It’s more fortune-telling than science, a near impossible task that I don’t envy.
We see but a small window into what can be or what could’ve been. They see every meeting, every interaction with a coach, and every practice snap–all while their time ticks away.