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Notre Dame Spring Game 2021: Top Storylines and Prospects to Watch

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistApril 30, 2021

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer plays against Boston College during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Before the Notre Dame Fighting Irish can think of a return to the College Football Playoff, they need to name a replacement for Ian Book.

Book was a three-year starter at quarterback and could be selected Friday or Saturday during the 2021 NFL draft.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has two main options to choose from to replace Book, and Saturday's Spring Game should help the decision-making process.

The Irish will go with either Drew Pyne or Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan. Freshman Tyler Buchner is not in the picture for the starting gig, but he will have plenty of eyes on him when he hits the gridiron Saturday.

                      

Top Storylines

Which Player Wins Quarterback Battle? 

Pyne and Coan are the primary candidates to win the job Book occupied for three full seasons.

The two signal-callers come with differing levels of experience. Pyne is a sophomore, and Coan is a graduate transfer from Wisconsin.

Coan has the edge in collegiate snaps, but if Pyne shines enough during the buildup to the season, Notre Dame could opt to build around him for the next few years. Both players will have a chance to impress in offensive coordinator Tommy Rees' system Saturday, but a decision likely will not be made off one spring exhibition.

Neither player will face significant pressure from the defensive line, and the contest will be more about developing chemistry at a slightly faster speed than practice.

Even if a decision will not be made, it will still be worth watching how Coan's experience and Pyne's time learning under Book translate to the offense.

                    

What Does Marcus Freeman's Defense Look Like? 

Notre Dame lost defensive coordinator Clark Lea to Vanderbilt and replaced him with Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.

Freeman's unit was one of the best in the FBS, and it helped the Bearcats earn a New Year's Six berth in 2020. Cincinnati opened that campaign by holding its first seven opponents to 20 points or fewer, and it limited Georgia to 24 points in its Peach Bowl loss.

We will not see the full defensive scheme at play Saturday, but we will get a chance to see some of the basic concepts Freeman is installing.

Freeman's most difficult task is replacing linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who slipped to the second day of the NFL draft. Owusu-Koramoah was the heart of the Irish defense. He won the Butkus Award and ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

The unit may not look perfect from the start, but if Freeman gets the best out of it as the season progresses, he will continue to boost his rising coaching profile.

               

Top Prospects to Watch

Tyler Buchner, QB 

Buchner likely will not play a role in the quarterback battle since Pyne has been around the program for a year and Coan is coming in as a grad transfer.

But the freshman signal-caller could be the most intriguing player to watch Saturday because of the restrictions that Kelly has lifted when it comes to him facing pressure.

Buchner did not play high school football in the fall in California, and he joined the program as an early arrival. Kelly said he will not have a red jersey on for the first half of the Spring Game, per SB Nation's Joshua Vowles.

"We're probably going to let Tyler Buchner in the first half not have a red jersey on," Kelly said. "He hasn't played in a year, so we're going to use the first half to allow him to really be part of this game without a red jersey. If he's in there, we'll see a little bit about his escapability."

Buchner was the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the class of 2021 behind Oklahoma's Caleb Williams and Georgia's Brock Vandagriff, per 247 Sports.

His freshman season should be mostly about development, but because he has not played in more than a year, there will be plenty of eyes on his pocket presence and arm in his adjusted spring role.

                

Michael Mayer, TE

Michael Mayer is the most exciting returnee to watch on Notre Dame's roster.

The tight end has potential to be a menace to college football defenses in the same way Florida's Kyle Pitts tortured SEC defenses.

Mayer had 42 catches for 450 yards and two scores in 2020, but that was just a peek at his potential, as Rees noted, per 247Sports' Tom Loy:

"I think he's really only scratching the surface and last year was only a brief glimpse of how good this kid can be. There's something to say about the way he works, the tenacity he plays with, the edge he plays with. Obviously he's extremely talented, but there is a reason why he's a great player."

Mayer is worth watching to see how he has morphed his body after a full year of working through Notre Dame's strength program.

If he lives up to his potential, Mayer could have a Rob Gronkowski- or Pitts-like impact on the Irish, and he could end up as their most dangerous offensive weapon for the next two years.

               

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90Statistics obtained from ESPN.com.

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