Notre Dame

Brandon Wimbush primed to excel as Notre Dame's starting quarterback of the future

Brandon Wimbush primed to excel as Notre Dame's starting quarterback of the future

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brandon Wimbush has been through this before. 

The super-talented Irish sophomore quarterback, who’s redshirting this fall, was in a similar spot in 2012. As a sophomore at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J., Wimbush found himself in a backup role despite possessing impressive arm strength and athleticism. The chatter around town was that Wimbush deserved to be his high school’s starting quarterback, though coach Rich Hansen felt he wasn’t ready for the role. 

But given all the voices saying Wimbush should’ve been the starting quarterback, Hansen felt the need to sit down with his star-quarterback-in-the-making and explain to him why he’d be a backup that season. 

“The meeting ended and he said to me, Coach, I get it. You don’t have to talk to me about this. I get it,” Hansen said. “We never had the conversation again.” 

“… It’s about maturity and it’s about a guy really understanding the game and understanding his place and his role. And I think a lot of that may be playing into what’s going on with him at Notre Dame today. Hopefully that helps him.”

As Notre Dame’s 2016 season nears its rocky end, the focus is being shifted on how things could be — and need to be — fixed in 2017. One of the most noticeable changes for the Irish next year will be a new defensive coordinator, but there’s likely another big one on the horizon: A new quarterback. 

While DeShone Kizer isn’t publicly indicating whether or not he’ll declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, he’s projected as a potential top-three pick next spring. And if Kizer leaves (and Malik Zaire, who will be eligible to leave as a graduate transfer, does too), the keys to Notre Dame’s offense will be handed to Wimbush. 

By all accounts, the 6-foot-1, 225 pound Wimbush has spent his 2016 on the sidelines getting ready for that task. 

“(He’s) been engaged, learning,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think he's been a very good leader. (He) cares about his teammates. I think he's got really good leadership skills because he knows the janitor's name here. I mean, he just is locked in to all the little things that take to be a really good leader. And then I think he's been really good in terms of attention to meetings when he knows he's not going to get on the field. So I think he's handled himself pretty well.”

Offensive lineman and team captain Mike McGlinchey agreed with his coach’s assessment. 

“He's a phenomenal kid and we're lucky to have him in our locker room,” McGlinchey said. “I can't say enough great things about Brandon because ever since he's gotten here, he's done everything the right way, treats his teammates the right way and there's a lot of great things to come from Brandon in the future here.”

Wimbush’s path to being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback isn’t a well-traveled one, given he played two games as a true freshman but was redshirted for his sophomore season. His freshman year came with some good (his 58-yard touchdown run against UMass) and some bad (his sack-strip fumble against Pitt), but that he got a taste of college football only to be relegated to third string duties for Year 2 is a challenge that could’ve proved difficult to handle. 

However, Wimbush has not only used this opportunity to prepare for potentially being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback next fall, but also to continue working toward his degree from Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business. Wimbush interned for KPMG in the summer and said during the spring he hopes to be a “big-time CEO” someday. 

“He wants to play on Sundays one day, but at the same time, he wants to be a leader of a Fortune 500 company,” Madei Williams, Wimbush’s personal quarterback coach, said. “So there’s a strong balance.” 

Add Wimbush’s academic goals to his high school experience as a two-year backup, and it becomes clear why there never was any threat of him transferring away from Notre Dame even as Kelly said in February that the plan was to preserve a year of his eligibility in 2016. But there’s more to it, too: Williams, a former Syracuse quarterback who first met Wimbush when he was in eighth grade, lauded his uncommon maturity. 

“I think he’s wise beyond his years,” Williams said. “If you have the opportunity to spend substantial time with him, you realize that he’s a very mature kid. Not easily rattled, easygoing. Someone who is very likable, very easy to be around. 

“So that’s why I believe his personality and his presence is so infections and contagious that people are naturally drawn to him. And that’s what you want from the potential leader of your program. Especially someone that has to be the face of Notre Dame.”

Kelly mentioned that Wimbush has been somewhat of a leader for Notre Dame, too, which is high praise for a guy who hasn’t played a single snap this season and only receives sparing third-string and scout team reps during practice. 

It’s perhaps been a little easier on Notre Dame’s coaches to work with Wimbush during his redshirt year given that his throwing mechanics don’t need much refinement (which is considerably different than those of Kizer during his first, and even second, year on campus). The ball explodes out of Wimbush’s hand, and he makes it look easy, too. 

Wimbush always had the arm talent, but through countless reps under the watch of Hansen and Williams, he came to Notre Dame with excellent footwork and a clean, quick release. That means coaches won’t have to spend much time with him on that aspect of his game if and when Kizer does leave and Wimbush takes over the offense. 

“He rips the ball,” Kizer said. “He definitely throws one of the best balls on the team for sure.”

Kizer is certainly the best quarterback Notre Dame has had under Kelly, and arguably is the best Irish quarterback of the last 20 years. Replacing him, in a vacuum, would seem difficult. 

But Wimbush already knew how to handle a year on the sidelines when he came to Notre Dame. And when he got his chance at St. Peter’s Prep, he excelled (he threw 22 touchdowns and one interception his senior year). 

So there’s no doubt in his high school coach’s mind that Wimbush will follow the same path in South Bend. 

“When he gets the ball at Notre Dame, believe me,” Hansen said, “he’s going to be lights out.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.