Notre Dame

Ohio State offers advice for Notre Dame's impending QB battle


Ohio State offers advice for Notre Dame's impending QB battle

A year ago in Columbus, it was taken for granted that the quarterback competition staring down Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes was a “good problem to have.” That was the quote du jour — everybody insisted that having J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller compete for the defending champions’ starting quarterback job was a positive.

Miller eventually dropped out of the running, deciding to switch to slot receiver. That left Barrett, who probably would’ve been a Heisman finalist in 2014 had he not fractured his right ankle (the same injury suffered by Malik Zaire) in the Buckeyes’ regular season finale against Michigan, and Jones, who won Ohio State a Big Ten Championship, a College Football Playoff semifinal and a national championship.

With Ohio State’s 2015 season in the rearview mirror, and Notre Dame staring down a similar quarterback challenge, Buckeyes players and coaches offered their advice as to what Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, DeShone Kizer, Zaire and Brandon Wimbush should prepare themselves for over the next eight months.

“The main thing, at the end of the day, be yourself,” Barrett said. “If you can be the best self you can be, that’s all you can do. And then understand that you control what you can control. With doing that, you put yourself in the best position that you can be in and then let the coaches do their job and evaluate.”

[MORE IRISH: Notre Dame will need to turn talent into production at LB]

Jones, who opened the 2015 season as Ohio State’s starter, echoed a similar sentiment.

“Do what you guys did to get there,” Jones said. “There’s a reason why every Division I player is at the level they’re playing at because they’re hard-workers, they’re leaders, they’re tough. I think if guys continue to be their self, you gotta be happy with the results.”

Ohio State didn’t tab Jones as its initial starting quarterback without weeks and months of continual evaluation. Offensive coordinator Ed Warriner said both statistical and intangible factors were considered, from completion percentage to ability to audible and pick up blitzes. But the most important part of the process was letting both Barrett and Jones know where they stood at all times.

“The best thing to do is constant communication with those guys and constant evaluation so they know where they’re at,” Warriner said. “Here’s the things that you’re behind in, here’s the things that you’re ahead in.”

But there can be a downside to that constant evaluation, especially for the guy who’s slipping toward being relegated to backup duties. Barrett admitted he was pressing early on, trying to do too much — even though that’s exactly what his coaches wanted. Meyer said it’s a good thing when a quarterback takes that approach, though parsing Barrett’s comments, it didn’t appear to work for him.

[MORE IRISH: Notre Dame confident in its next wave at 'wide receiver university']

“You try to get to a point in a competition where you try to best showcase your talents,” Barrett said. “But at the end of the day, that might bring stress. I know it did to me, just trying to do too much and not really playing my game.”

Warriner observed the same stress, which certainly didn’t help Barrett in the preseason quarterback competition (which he ultimately lost to Jones). The fear of making a mistake was there, borne of a self-inflicted pressure to play perfect in order to win the job.

“You can’t play well looking over your shoulder,” Warriner said. “You can’t look in the rearview mirror and try to figure out what’s going on. You have to look forward. I’m sure there was a little bit of that going on early.”

Barrett supplanted Jones as Ohio State’s starter for its Oct. 24 game against Rutgers, then was suspended two weeks (one game) after being charged with DUI. Jones started Nov. 7 against Minnesota, then Barrett returned for an uninspiring win over Illinois. The next week was that season-killing loss to Michigan State, the one that kept one of college football’s four best teams out of the four-team playoff. There probably were only two teams capable of beating Alabama this year: Clemson and Ohio State.

For Jones, hearing the news that he was being demoted wasn’t easy. This was a guy who decided against capitalizing on his meteoric three-game rise and entering the NFL Draft to return to Ohio State, and now was going to finish out his final year in Columbus on the bench.

“It was difficult when they broke the news to me because it was kind of an ego thing, a pride thing,” Jones said. “But I understood what wasn’t working, what we needed to do as an offense to not only make this offense successful but this team special. Understanding my abilities, and his at the time was better for what we wanted to do as an offense, then there’s nothing I could do about it.”

This is where calling a quarterback competition between two or three talented and/or accomplished players may not be an entirely good problem to have. Feelings will be hurt, stress will be inflicted, and — as was the case with Ohio State’s offense for a good chunk of the season — expectations may not be met. The threat of losing the job you have, or used to have, because of a bad week of practice or a bad game can have far-reaching negative effects.

[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]

The lesson for Notre Dame is that things aren't guaranteed to go smoothly over the next eight months.

Barrett and Zaire are friends and met as recruits at the Elite 11 quarterback camp in 2012. He’s already reached out to Zaire, who will be a redshirt junior in 2016, about how to handle the situation. It’s not an enviable one, given Kizer set a Notre Dame record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and steered the Irish to nine of their 10 wins in 2015.

But Barrett believes Zaire has the right mentality to handle the competition and give himself a chance at winning his job back. His other key piece of advice: Trust your coaches, and don’t worry about anything but how to improve yourself on a daily basis.

“We talked about it a little bit. I was telling him, at the end of the day, you only control what you can control,” Barrett said. “I think I tend to not focus on that as much. I started to later in the year. If I could be my best, then that's all I could be at the end of the day. Just have trust in the coaches that they're going to do their job well, that's evaluating the players and deciding who is going to be the best person to play.

“That's one of the things I focused on later in the year in order to help me play well. That's what I told him. At the end of the day, that's all you can do. You can't do anything outside yourself. That's part of it. I think the main thing is to control what you can control, then leave it in the coaches' hands, have faith they're going to do their job and you're going to be the starting quarterback.”

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.