SOUTH BEND — It’s no coincidence that Notre Dame opened August training camp with two consecutive days of practice in the red zone.
The Irish did the same in spring training after new defensive coordinator Al Golden made the suggestion in light of his six seasons as an NFL assistant. Working in such tight quarters also helps gauge the quarterback competition between favorite Tyler Buchner and lesser-heralded Drew Pyne.
“Our defense is doing a great job,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said Saturday. “They make it extremely difficult with their package there for certain things. We have to understand: are we looking at where we can attack or are we looking at where we have to make the right decision? And there, it is essential.
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Rees refers to these forays inside the opponent’s 20-yard line as ‘four-point plays’, which is the difference between settling for a field goal and hitting it for a touchdown. .
In the former Notre Dame quarterback’s first two seasons as offensive coordinator, the Irish finished 102n/a and tied for 32n/a (with UCLA) in red-zone efficiency — or scoring touchdowns on those trips.
While three-year-old starter Ian Book managed a 76.7% TD rate in 2020 and Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan bumped it up to 88% last fall, the combo no tested from Buchner and Pyne will be asked to continue this upward trend.
In Friday’s open practice, Buchner unofficially had 5 of 13 passes with three touchdowns and one interception during multiple red zone periods. He also scored on a quarterback draw.
Pyne, sharing first-team reps with Buchner, had 11 of 17 touchdown passes with seven touchdown passes and just one interception in the score zone. Pyne also took a sack and hit Braden Lenzy in the back corner of the end zone on a designed rollout.
Former walk-on Matt Salerno went down with three of those goalkeepers, including two from Pyne.
“It’s a bit of a stress,” Rees said. “That’s why I like being there at the start of camp because it’s really a challenge for the quarterback. We welcome that and we want to continue to be good there.
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Moving an All-America center candidate like Jarrett Patterson to left guard this late in the offseason might seem like a risky move, but it made perfect sense to Notre Dame’s coaching staff.
“We are extremely satisfied,” said Rees. “I could go on and on about Jarrett, but it was a good transition for him.”
As Patterson was coming off March surgery on his left pectoral muscle, junior Zeke Correll took advantage of his chance to complete during spring training. Redshirt sophomore Andrew Kristofic became the odd man out after replacing Correll at left guard for the final eight games of last season.
“Zeke has made a lot of progress over the past eight months, and we all want to do our best 11 on the court together,” Rees said. “We’re extremely confident in the combination of having these guys there together.”
Pairing a returning captain like Patterson on the left side with sophomore tackle Joe Alt could provide better directional balance to a Notre Dame running game that was notably dominant on the right in 2021. According to PFF College, the Irish have ran between the center right and right tackle more than a third more often than they ran behind the inside left.
That 123-92 disparity in attempts led to an average of 4.92 yards on the right-side rush, including 10 touchdowns and 32 first downs.
When running left between center and tackle, the Irish averaged 4.86 yards and had just six touchdowns and 19 first downs.
Rees, however, played down the idea that Notre Dame might switch to a left-hand running team.
“It doesn’t change much,” he said.
Gi-Bran Payne makes a sudden impact
Four-star receiver Tobias Merriweather wasn’t the only June arrival to open his eyes during August’s two-day training camp.
Indiana transfer Gi’Bran Payne, a much-needed piece of depth in an injury-riddled room of running backs, made a quick impression with tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden Staes.
“All of them had a lot of reps the first two days of camp,” Rees said. “We had high expectations for the tight ends. They came and did a good job.
The same goes for Payne. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, the four-star product from Cincinnati has a strong bottom half but still needs to add armor to his upper body.
“Gi’Bran has shown that it’s not something he can’t handle,” Rees said. “He went in there mentally, was very sharp, made a few plays, made a few good points. He rebounded one (Friday) which scored. He will fit in very well. »
Jayden Thomas sits down
A day after drawing praise from Marcus Freeman for his offseason improvement, redshirt freshman wide receiver Jayden Thomas worked sideways for all five open practice periods for what Rees called precautionary reasons. .
Thomas was slowed by a turf toe in his senior season at Pace Academy in Atlanta, and a reported leg problem kept him from doing more in his freshman season. Thomas finished with just 14 snaps, all in the last three games, but he contributed four catches for 39 yards and an excellent block in the field in the Blue-Gold Game.
“JT did a great job,” Rees said. “He must continue to be reliable and available. I think he has made great strides in terms of development and commitment to what we do. I am excited about the things he owns.
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.