Making a list of the items Notre Dame will miss most about Ian Book starts with his experience and toughness.
Not far below is his ability as a runner. And it’s one area where the on-paper difference between Book and his 2021 successor is pronounced, unless early enrollee freshman Tyler Buchner surprisingly finds his way into the starting lineup this season. Neither Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan nor rising sophomore Drew Pyne has displayed Book’s natural running skills at their prior stops – on designed runs or improvised plays.
With Book and his athleticism gone, Notre Dame loses 1,517 career rushing yards, 4.2 yards per rush and 17 touchdowns. The yardage is second in school history among quarterbacks, behind Tony Rice. Remove sacks and fumble recoveries from his 2020 rushing line, and Book rushed 88 times for 634 yards and nine touchdowns. That’s 7.2 yards per carry. His legs were a legitimate weapon for the Irish offense.
As for Coan? He ran for 139 sack-adjusted yards on 37 attempts (3.65 yards per rush) as Wisconsin’s starter in 2019. Include sacks, and his career totals are 76 carries for minus-11 yards. The Badgers rarely called designed runs for him that weren’t quarterback sneaks. He didn’t scramble or extend plays outside the pocket with regularity.
Notre Dame’s offense, then, will either turn him into more of a runner in 2021 if he starts or lose a consistent source of yards from 2020. Head coach Brian Kelly sees the former as more likely.
“We’re not afraid to run Jack,” Kelly said. “He’s a better athlete than people have given him credit for. Maybe he hasn’t been discredited, but he’s a good athlete. He runs well. He’s big. He’s strong. Running him is certainly going to be part of our offense and what we ask him to do.”
It’s not as square-peg-in-round-hole as his numbers say, though. Coan’s pocket poise and movability in the pocket are strengths on his 2019 tape, but he has mobility when it’s needed. He’s not Book as an improviser or natural runner, but he’s not on par with sludge either. He can dodge rushers and has a few runs where he cut or made a defender miss.
Basically, there are periodic signs in his quarterback film he was a high school lacrosse player who originally committed to play the sport at Notre Dame. He also ran for more than 2,500 yards and scored 33 rushing touchdowns as the quarterback for Sayville (N.Y.) High School. Kelly plans to tap into that. Coan is eager to show it’s still in his tool belt.
“Running is a part of my game I can use when I need to as far as scrambling and things like that,” Coan said Saturday in his first availability since arriving this winter. “When I was at Wisconsin, I’d rather hand the ball off to Jonathan Taylor than run the ball. But I’m excited to use my legs a bit here. I’m more athletic than a lot of people think.”
Pyne, meanwhile, was a capable runner when asked to be but not a high-volume one at New Canaan (Conn.) High School. In four years as a starter, he had 292 carries for 1,182 yards (4.0 yards per rush). There are designed runs on his high school film. He can scramble and displays some comfort when improvising.
“I loved running in high school,” Pyne said. “I think it’s a great part of my game. Maybe I won’t score an 80-yard touchdown, but I pride myself getting out of the pocket and making plays.”
Allowing he and Coan to dip back into their ground games fits the offense’s experimental and no-stone-unturned theme of this spring. The identity and scheme Notre Dame and first-year coordinator Tommy Rees employed in 2020 isn’t locked in as the 2021 modus operandi. Notre Dame loses too much at too many important positions to run it back the same way.
The 15 spring practices won’t end with a definitive answer on the offense’s plans, but they’ll be important in gathering information on what should be a staple and what to stick in the trash can. Notable quarterback rushing yards and attempts might not be the impossibility or afterthought the perception indicates.
“We’re going to go into this spring and find out where this offense will operate most efficiently,” Kelly said. “It’s really about trying to establish how will this offense serve itself best with the players we have and those who will be playing a great deal for us in terms of scoring points. It’s about scoring.”
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