At high school basketball games, when visiting players were introduced, our cheerleaders would urge the crowd (well, spectators) to shout “who’s he?” after every introduction. Generally, we didn’t know these opposing players — nor did we care. Even when we were very well aware of the player’s identity, we pretended not to know.
I remember a 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 monster who played for one of our district rivals. He was committed to Al McGuire’s Marquette team, a Midwest powerhouse that recruited our Chicago area as if it were part of some farm system. Yeah, we knew this guy but asked “who’s he?” any way. And then watched our 6-foot-2 center hold him to 35 points and 21 boards.
So now, Marcus Freeman has announced that the competition is over and that the starting quarterback at Notre Dame for the beginning of the 2022 season (i.e., the Ohio State game) will be Tyler Buchner. Join me now: “Who’s he?” Let’s try to answer that question so that we Buckeye fans will know what to expect come the evening of Sept. 3.
Buchner as a recruit
The 2021 recruiting class was a rich one in quarterbacks, especially once Quinn Ewers reclassified to join the class. Ewers became the No. 1 ranked QB (and player). The Buckeyes’ Kyle McCord was ranked as the No. 6 quarterback (one spot behind Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, I’m sorry to say). Buchner was ranked as the No. 11 quarterback in the class and had a composite ranking of No. 65 nationally (at any position). His best ranking was No. 39 (ESPN) and his worst was Rivals at No. 111.
Buchner was regarded in this recruiting class as a pro-style QB, but the high school clips that I saw featured his running even more than his passing. He could throw a deep ball or a sideline pass with a quick release, but it was his speed and his ability to make tacklers miss and then outrun people that caught my attention. With offers from the major West Coast schools (Oregon, Southern Cal, Stanford) and Alabama, Buchner committed to Notre Dame early – in March of 2019 – and in the fall of that year, he enjoyed a strong junior year. In 2020, however, his La Jolla, CA, team didn’t play a football season because of COVID, and Buchner missed his senior year of playing.
Recruiting analyst Greg Biggins lauded Buchner’s “escapability” in the pocket and as a runner, claiming that Buchner, “looks like a running back in the open field.” Biggins also predicted a couple of years ago that the young quarterback would need, “to rein in his running at the college level.” After watching 2021 film and studying the stats for games in which Buchner played, I think that his instinct to scramble — to pull the ball down and run on called passing plays — might still be an issue.
Buchner as a freshman: the 2021 season
Clearly, Tyler Buchner was a highly touted QB coming in to Notre Dame. He enrolled early and played in the 2021 spring game. Not only did he play, but he also starred in the game. The excitement and hype around Buchner grew to the point where many Irish fans expected him to be competing with graduate transfer Jack Coan, who had moved over from Wisconsin after the 2020 season, for the starting job. But as the 2021 season got underway, Buchner was third on the depth chart, behind Coan and Drew Pyne, whom he beat out this year. As the season progressed, Buchner moved into the No. 2 slot and played in 10 games.
Buchner’s stats for 2021, really, are similar to the ones that Kyle McCord put up for the Buckeyes as C.J. Stroud’s backup. Buchner threw 35 passes and completed 21 of them (60%) for 296 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions. McCord’s numbers: 25 for 38 (65.8%), 416 yards, two TDs and two interceptions. The big difference between the two was Buchner’s rushing. Second on the Irish team in rushing last year, behind only Kyren Williams, he carried the ball 46 times, gained 336 yards (an eye-popping 7.3 yards/carry average), and scored three rushing touchdowns. McCord ran nine times for -16 yards.
Buchner entered the games in particular situations, ones where his ability to run or throw was a distinct advantage. In the second game of the season against Toledo, for instance, Buchner’s rushing was crucially important, as the Irish pulled out a 32-29 victory with a touchdown at 1:09 in the fourth quarter. Buchner played a lot in the game, hitting all three of his passes for 78 yards and a TD and rushing for 68 more on seven carries (9.7 average). After Toledo, fans again expected to see more of Buchner.
His running remained impressive throughout the year, but his passing was inconsistent. Both inaccuracy and poor reads kept him out of the starting role. Against Virginia Tech (another 32-29 Irish win), Buchner was 6-of-14 passing with a TD and two interceptions. In games against major opponents, Brian Kelly played him in some situations, but he didn’t see much action. Against Cincinnati, USC, and Stanford combined, Buchner threw five passes, completing three. He carried the ball 10 times total in those three games. Though healthy, Buchner didn’t play at all in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
Buchner as a starter in 2022
Tyler Buchner didn’t play football in his senior year of high school. As a freshman at Notre Dame, he didn’t start any games and saw primarily package reps in practice and run/pass situations in games. He rolled his ankle in spring practice this year and didn’t play in the Irish’s 2022 spring game. He’s never been the team leader, “the guy” at Notre Dame.
That’s why Marcus Freeman named him as the starter three weeks ahead of the opening game. Buchner needs to feel that responsibility, practice in that role, and have his teammates get accustomed to the idea of his starting.
Going up against Ohio State in Ohio Stadium as the featured game of opening week is enough to scare anyone. And he’ll be competing against Stroud, the nation’s best collegiate quarterback. There will be comparisons. So far, it sounds as though Buchner’s likely to be a liability for the Irish, rather than an asset. No way. Here’s why.
Cross “pro-style” off the recruiting or scouting report. Buchner is a genuine dual-threat QB and very threatening as a runner or a passer. He’ll put a lot of pressure on the Buckeye linebackers, cornerbacks, and defensive ends with his option game. He’s capable of a quick read and a quick decision whether to throw or run. I watched quite a bit of 2021 film, and was impressed with how Buchner could freeze a defender. Once frozen in place, they became easy prey for the option game.
When Buchner runs, he’s elusive and fast. A really good athlete. The Buckeyes will need all of the team speed that they can muster to contain him. Forcing him to pass is the better option, if the Bucks can pull it off. Both Buchner’s mechanics and decision-making decline rapidly when he’s under pressure. A strong pass rush can disrupt his game, but the rushers need always to be aware of his scrambling potential. He’s a good enough rusher and scrambler that he warrants a “spy” to watch him on every play. But that spy has to be fast.
Buchner’s arm is strong, and he can throw deep or wide. Look for him to throw to tight ends a lot. The wideouts were never the Irish strong suit, but the loss for the season of one of the best – Avery Davis – with a torn ACL damages the long passing game. And they’re not very deep at wideout.
We’ll get to know Mr. Buchner pretty quickly. The first three series for Notre Dame will probably tell us how well Tyler Buchner is going to perform. He’s talented but relatively inexperienced. He’ll need to score a lot of points. He’ll be under a lot of pressure. And my guess is that he’ll probably feel it. I think that the Buckeyes are fortunate to catch him in his first start, at any level, in almost three years. With a few games under his belt, he’ll be a good one.