Notre Dame Fighting Irish football freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner and his calm life in the fast lane
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Tyler Buchner’s calm life in the fast lane

There was no nervous energy. No tense body language. No apprehension. None of the understandable freshman reactions. Tyler Buchner just let it come to him.

That’s a fitting description of Buchner’s out-of-nowhere college debut, when the freshman quarterback strolled onto the Notre Dame Stadium field Sept. 11 against Toledo and lit the fuse on a five-play, 96-yard touchdown sprint. It’s also a portrayal of Buchner’s first Notre Dame media availability.

One early November evening, the 19-year-old quarterback and two-and-a-half-year fan fixation sat at a high table in the Irish Athletic Center lounge, a room full of recorder-wielding questioners staring at him. This is the other side of the Notre Dame football fishbowl he hadn’t yet seen. It would be understandable if he were antsy.

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He was unmistakably the opposite. There were no darting eyes or an avoidance of eye contact as he spoke. No one-sentence answers. No buttoned-up extreme caution. No nervous mannerisms.

Much like he is on the field, Buchner appeared to be in command of the scene in front of him and comfortable under the lights. He dove in headfirst.

“I have a girlfriend now, which is great,” Buchner said, unprompted, during his response to the first question posed to him.

He referred to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly as “BK” when thinking back to a conversation they had after he threw an interception at Virginia Tech. Asked if the game has slowed down since his mid-year arrival, he offered a firm “definitely.”

So too, it seems, has life at Notre Dame — despite living it at warp speed.

Discussion about Buchner often carries an undertone of expectations to be the next big one. He committed in March 2019, then a top-100 recruit and a high school sophomore. The fascination around him started then.

Backup quarterbacks and highly touted freshmen capture a fan base’s imagination like no other players can, especially with a weekly tease of playing time that fuels the fire.

Notre Dame quarterbacks are always under the lamp, warmed for the right moment to hatch. Ramp the heat up a level for Buchner.

Yet life in this spot appears to suit him. And, in his words, it’s “joyful.”

“I enjoy just being at the game,” Buchner said. “It’s always fun mentally seeing what the defense is in, seeing what they’re doing. And [starting quarterback] Jack [Coan] — one of my good friends — is playing, and I want to see him do well.”

Notre Dame fans who want to see Buchner now have gotten their wish. He is in every game plan despite not starting. The redshirt is off. He’s in the deep end and keeping himself afloat.

“He’s a fast learner,” Coan said. “He just wants to keep building and keep getting better.”

Slowing down

Buchner’s circumstances screamed redshirt. He played 13 games of high school football against laughably inferior San Diego-area private school competition and saw his senior season sideswiped by COVID-19. He enrolled early at Notre Dame, skipping California’s shortened spring makeup schedule in favor of jump-starting his college football education. It was no ordinary freshman transition.

Eleven games into his first college season, though, he’s not only just playing, but is no longer restricted to a specific package of plays. He’s Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher, with 280 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries. As a passer, he has completed 20 of 34 for 302 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He had a streak of eight straight completions snapped in last week’s win over Georgia Tech.

“He’s an amazing playmaker,” Coan said.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football quarterback Tyler Buchner
Buchner has played in nine of Notre Dame’s 11 games as a freshman. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Buchner started as a spark plug, earned a long look as the potential answer this year and is now a complementary piece in a two-quarterback system who adds a new dimension to Notre Dame’s rushing attack. Kelly credits his retention of information, understanding of protections, consistent accuracy and sound decision-making as reasons for his accelerated path to playing time.

“Once there’s a consistency in that and we see that over a period of time, there’s a confidence this is not just a good day or good practice,” Kelly said. “We can feel like this is something that’s habit-forming, and we can expect to see it in a practice on Wednesday or a game on Saturday.”

It wasn’t always there, though. As would be expected of someone who played one high school football season. His acclimation was like jumping from Single-A baseball to the majors.

There were initial bumps on the field and mental hurdles to clear, including the inevitable but still humbling moment where he wondered if he was built for this. To Buchner, that’s a foreign feeling. He paused to recall when it last hit him.

“Probably middle school lacrosse, or maybe baseball when I was younger,” he said. “It was always something when I was playing up with older kids, because that’s what it’s like when you come here.

“You’re playing with people much older than you. It’s like, ‘Can I do it?’ Then baseball, you get your first hit and you think, ‘OK, yeah I can.’”

That “hit” was somewhere in fall camp, he said. Getting to that point before his first season opened the door for more possibilities — like playing Year 1 in some manner.

Buchner said Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees told him during camp he might have a role. The initial package of plays for him was in the Florida State game plan, he said, but weren’t needed. The next week was different. By the end of that 32-29 win over Toledo, Kelly said Rees called plays for Buchner that were installed for any quarterback. Warp speed didn’t feel so fast.

“When things start slowing down, it means you know more about the game, you’ve gotten more reps, you’ve seen it,” Buchner said. “It’s like doing a math problem. The more times you’ve done the math problem, the easier it gets for you.”

‘We like the things we see’

Buchner’s debut in Notre Dame’s second game was a planned move and a well-timed one in the moment. Notre Dame’s last three possessions ended in a strip-sack and two three-and-outs. The Irish started their fifth drive on their own 4-yard line, and out came Buchner as a change of pace.

This is where plans and visions for Year 1 roles changed. Buchner kept the ball on a read option and scooted 26 yards on his first play. An 11-yard gain on a similar run followed. A 15-yard completion and 43-yard Kyren Williams’ touchdown run capped an eye-opening drive.

Save for a one-game absence versus Wisconsin due to an ankle issue, Buchner has seen his role and trust grow to the point where Notre Dame pulled Coan for him — and not sophomore Drew Pyne — in the Oct. 9 game at Virginia Tech.

Buchner uncorked a 46-yard heave to senior receiver Kevin Austin Jr. on his fifth snap. Two plays later, he scored his first career-rushing touchdown. He led a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown march that put Notre Dame ahead at halftime. Irish-friendly households surely wondered if the future had arrived now.

Buchner threw two interceptions in the second half, though, following an eight-yard touchdown toss to Williams. Just one of his final six passes found a teammate. Two of them went to Virginia Tech defenders, including a 26-yard pick-six.

“I threw an out [route] to a cloud corner, which you can’t do,” Buchner said. “I can learn from that. I won’t do it again. It’s not a great feeling.”

He clearly learned something, because the second interception stands as his last misfire. Those subsequent eight straight completions yielded 94 yards and one touchdown pass.

There have been occasional missteps, like his fumble on the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter at Virginia. Buchner piloted Notre Dame to that point in eight plays, covering 85 yards, including a 22-yard downfield strike to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer. Then it rudely halted.

All told, the fumble had little impact on Notre Dame’s 28-3 win. It even gave Kelly something more to evaluate.

“It’s his reaction, our conversation and how he took that,” Kelly said. “We want to get him back in there and see how he leads that next drive. You can’t duplicate that in practice.

“Do we want to fumble? Absolutely not. But all those things are building toward his development. From my perspective, those are moments that allow us to see what he’s about. We like the things we see.”

What you don’t see — jitters, rust and feeling overwhelmed — is just as impressive given the context of his enrollment.

“I completely forgot,” Coan said, “he didn’t have a season last year.”

In fairness to Coan, Buchner has not offered many reminders of late.

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