Saturday’s game between Notre Dame and Wisconsin had an air of suspense before the two teams even took the field. Did Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst make the right decision in sticking with quarterback Graham Mertz over Jack Coan? How would Coan, now Notre Dame’s quarterback, fare against his former team? Would this game add Coan to a growing list of quarterback transfers who elevate their new programs upon arrival?
Coan only had three quarters to make his case. He appeared to injure his leg after taking a sack in the third quarter, and after walking gingerly off the field, he didn’t return. The 12th-ranked Fighting Irish didn’t miss him much, toppling No. 18 Wisconsin, 41-13, with third-string quarterback Drew Pyne.
Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said after the game that Coan had a soft tissue injury but clean X-rays, and he was optimistic that Coan would return next week against Cincinnati.
Before he left the game, though, Coan showed glimpses of why Kelly trusted the graduate quarterback to lead the program. He managed 158 passing yards and a touchdown behind an embattled Notre Dame offensive line that was bullied by Wisconsin’s swarming defensive front.
Coan announced his decision to transfer to Notre Dame in January after starting 18 games at Wisconsin and guiding the Badgers to a 10-4 record and Rose Bowl appearance in 2019.
He suffered a right foot injury last October, before the start of the Big Ten’s delayed 2020 season, and didn’t appear in a game. The redshirt sophomore Mertz, who took Coan’s place, remains Wisconsin’s starter.
But on Saturday Coan looked more solid than Mertz, who threw four interceptions, including two consecutive interceptions that were returned for touchdowns by the Irish in the fourth quarter.
Coan is part of a throng of players who take advantage of the N.C.A.A.’s graduate transfer rule each season, which allows players who have earned their bachelor’s degrees to transfer to a graduate program elsewhere and play immediately, as long as they haven’t used up their five years of eligibility.
Earlier this year, the N.C.A.A. made it easier for players in all sports, even those who have not yet graduated, to transfer and play immediately. A new rule, which was approved by the N.C.A.A.’s Division I Council in April, allows for one unrestricted transfer per player, meaning transfers wouldn’t have to sit out a season or seek immediate eligibility through waivers after changing schools. The rule change already prompted a mass exodus of men’s basketball players to the transfer portal.
Critics of the new rule argue that it allows players to walk away from a team instead of trying to improve their current circumstances.
Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin football coach and athletic director, said he put the onus on the coaches in those situations.
“Am I in favor of overall transferring, an open transfer like that? Eh,” Alvarez said in a phone interview. He added: “When I was the athletic director, I told my coaches, ‘You recruit the players. You see what they’re like. You see what type of background they have, what type of players they are. And it’s your responsibility to build a rapport that they want to play for you. But there comes a time where the best interest of the young man is to go someplace else.’”
Alvarez said he thought Coan handled the situation with Wisconsin well, adding that it “worked out positively” for both Coan and the Badgers.
In 2011, Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, took advantage of the rule when he transferred to Wisconsin from North Carolina State. A three-year starter at N.C. State, Wilson lost his starting job after missing the team’s spring practice to attend the Colorado Rockies’ spring training (Colorado drafted Wilson in the fourth round in 2010).
“Russell’s a prime example,” said Alvarez, who was the Badgers’ athletic director when Wilson transferred to the program. “He was given an ultimatum there. They had a good young quarterback, and he made a decision to come here. Good situation for us. Good for Russell.”
Wilson’s transfer birthed opportunities for quarterbacks like Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts to take similar paths. Hurts lost his starting job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa and played for Oklahoma in his final season of eligibility. Burrow transferred to Louisiana State from Ohio State after Dwayne Haskins beat him out for the starting job in 2018.
Justin Fields, now the Chicago Bears quarterback, transferred out of Georgia in 2019 after sitting behind Jake Fromm for a year. Fields, a redshirt freshman at the time of his departure from Georgia, didn’t benefit from graduate transfer rules, but the N.C.A.A. granted Fields immediate eligibility via a hardship waiver.
Burrow, Hurts and Fields showed the potential for transfers to have a profound impact on a program after seeking a better opportunity: All three led their new teams to the College Football Playoff. Burrow’s 2019 L.S.U. team went undefeated on its way to a national title.
Could Coan be next in line?
He has Notre Dame off to a 4-0 start after Saturday’s win over the Badgers. He has thrown nine touchdowns with two interceptions this season. In his first start for the Irish, he threw for over 300 yards with four touchdowns against Florida State as Notre Dame staved off a Seminole comeback.
In Saturday’s game, despite pressure from a blitz-happy Wisconsin defense that sometimes forced him into errant throws, Coan did what he had done well in the team’s first three games: He limited turnovers and wasn’t afraid to take shots down the field.
Coan had the best play of the first half when he dropped the ball right into receiver Kevin Austin Jr.’s hands on a deep ball down the left sideline, which was good for a 36-yard touchdown.
Austin also caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Pyne in the fourth quarter, and Chris Tyree returned a kickoff 96 yards for a Notre Dame score.
Notre Dame has been to two College Football Playoff games, appearing severely outmatched in both — a 30-3 loss to Clemson in 2018 and a 31-14 loss to Alabama in January. Coan’s ability to push his new program past its previous postseason woes remains to be seen, but the Irish seem to at least be on their way to getting there.
“Everybody’s trying to peg teams early on, like, all right, ‘Who are they?’” Kelly said. “We’re still trying to figure ourselves out. But everybody already has us figured out as to who we were. I just know that it’s a resilient group that believes they’re going to win.”