SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Mike Sanford isn’t forgetting about Brandon Wimbush, even as he and his fellow coaches work through the challenge of playing both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire in Notre Dame’s Sept. 4 season opener against Texas.
Wimbush, the super-talented sophomore and former four-star recruit, won’t play this season if everything goes according to plan. With Kizer and Zaire ahead of him on the depth chart, Notre Dame plans to redshirt Wimbush to preserve a year of his eligibility — which they hoped to do last year until Zaire’s season-ending injury forced him into backup duty.
Keeping a redshirting quarterback engaged is a difficult challenge: Notre Dame lost Zaire for a stretch during his redshirt 2013 season, for example. Wimbush has only received sparing reps in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 work during preseason camp, and unless something happens to Kizer or Zaire, those intermittent third-team reps will continue through the end of the regular season.
So Sanford, who’s entering Year 2 as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, has had to devise some ways to keep Wimbush engaged during practice and meetings.
“He likes the challenge of it,” Sanford said. “If you give a young player or a player that right now isn’t necessarily the starting quarterback the opportunity to kind of hang out and get comfortable and complacent, then they don’t grow. I try to to put him on the spot a lot. It also allows Malik, DeShone and the other quarterbacks in the room to see how he’s going to respond and then if he responds incorrectly they’re all ready to jump on it.
“… And then in practice, coach him hard. The reps he gets individually, coach him hard and let him know every rep he’s taking should be evaluated as a game-like rep.”
While the narrow focus for Sanford, coach Brian Kelly and associate head coach Mike Denbrock is on the 2016 season, they very well could roll into the 2017 season with Wimbush as their starting quarterback. Both Kizer and Zaire will be eligible to enter the NFL Draft after this season, and Zaire also would have the option of transferring as a graduate student after he earns his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame.
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Sanford said the rocket-armed, speedy-legged Wimbush has made “absolutely mind-blowing” progress from this point last year in terms of his knowledge of the Irish offense.
“Unbelievable growth,” Sanford said. “And his knowledge of what we’re doing, the physical, mechanical part of it within the structure of our offense is all starting to come together. I get so excited every time he goes out there because you get to see the value of those reps that he got last year. He struggled through them mightily, he was asked to run a very sophisticated offense and didn’t really know much of what was going on.
“And then he got really 12 weeks of reps with the two’s throughout the season last year. And now to see those really all start to pay major dividends toward his growth is encouraging, so exciting and he’s coming along.”
Wimbush during spring ball handled the idea of redshirting the 2016 season well and appears fully committed to the Irish — he’s entering the Mendoza College of Business and interned for KPMG over the summer, and said he wants to use his Notre Dame education to become a big-time CEO someday.
Mendoza, Mendoza, Mendoza... Put football aside I'm accepted into Mendoza college of Business! 🍀🍀 goirish! pic.twitter.com/AwNZvzeL24— Brandon Wimbush (@BrandonW_7) March 24, 2015
And when 2017 rolls around, Wimbush will be given an opportunity to compete to start at Notre Dame. If Irish coaches are able to keep him engaged in the offense throughout this fall, he’ll have a nice head start on earning that job in a year.
“There's no frustration on anybody's part,” Kelly said. “He'll be able to compete for the starting job next year.”