Notre Dame

Where does Brandon Wimbush fit in Notre Dame's QB competition?


Where does Brandon Wimbush fit in Notre Dame's QB competition?

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Thinking back to where things stood a year ago at this time, it’s a little strange DeShone Kizer is the guy with the most experience of the three entrants into Notre Dame’s quarterback competition.  

Kizer was buried on the Irish depth chart during 2015 spring practice, an afterthought who admitted he had serious doubts about continuing his football career as he dealt with a scary off-the-field issue (his then-girlfriend, Elli Thatcher, underwent surgery to remove a tumor from her neck). But after Everett Golson transferred in May and Malik Zaire fractured and dislocated his ankle in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s second game, it was Kizer who stepped in, fired a game-winning heave to Will Fuller and started 11 games for a team that reached the Fiesta Bowl. 

It was a lesson in how to succeed under unpredictable, volatile circumstances. And it was one Brandon Wimbush — the sophomore-to-be Irish quarterback oozing with talent — took to heart his first year on campus. 

“He didn’t know what his situation was going to be coming into the fall and I saw how he prepared to be the starter, especially even as third string,” Wimbush said. “I’ve taken to that mindset and I kind of follow his footsteps as to how he did his business, and hopefully I’ll have the same opportunity in the next couple years or whatever to show my abilities."

Notre Dame’s quarterback competition has three contestants: Kizer, Zaire and Wimbush. The evaluative process is in its nascent stages, but in racing terms, Kizer probably begins it in pole position. Zaire isn’t far behind, if he is at all. Wimbush, unlike the other two, only has a handful of garbage-time snaps and second-team reps to his name. 

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Somebody is going to have to be No. 3 on the depth chart when Notre Dame begins its season Sept. 3 against Texas. Wimbush might be the most talented player in Mike Sanford’s quarterback room, but is well aware of the fact Kizer and Zaire have much more experience than he does. 

“They have that over me,” Wimbush said. “I have to prove myself and what I can do. But I know the offense and there is a trust between myself and the coaching staff.

“… Showing the guys and showing the people around me and the coaching staff that they can trust me when I’m out there, I think that’s the biggest challenge. You can’t prove that without experience.”

Still, coach Brian Kelly was quick to pivot away from a February comment that he and the Irish coaching staff were planning on redshirting Wimbush this fall. The message probably wasn’t a productive one — how do you keep a kid engaged through December if he knows he’s not going to play in February? — so that blueprint for the former four-star quarterback’s development, at least for now, was shredded. 

Seemingly, there’s a real challenge to getting Wimbush enough reps to allow him not only to develop, but to provide the Irish coaching staff enough data points and evaluation opportunities to give him a real shot at winning the job. Sanford said Notre Dame’s quarterback reps are divided in a six-four-two arrangement: Six for the first group, four for the second and two for the third. He said Kizer and Zaire — noting they’ve both started at the college level — should exit spring practice with almost identical reps. Wimbush won’t be far behind, Sanford was quick to add. 

“I wouldn’t say there’s enough to go around for three quarterbacks, but we do as best as we can with the time allotted,” Wimbush said. “I think they do a great job and I’m fortunate to be out there competing with these guys.”

Sanford said the second-team reps Wimbush took in 2015, plus the handful of late-game blowout snaps he took, did count for something. His 55-yard touchdown run against UMass showcased his dual-threat potential, but his sack-strip fumble against Pitt highlighted his inexperience at the college level. Because of the latter mistake, Notre Dame’s first-team offense had to come back into a game that should’ve been salted away. 

But to Sanford’s point, Wimbush does have that Pitt blunder as a teachable moment, as well as the reps he took with the backup offense last fall. There is a difference in having a guy who’s lightly experienced as a second-stringer competing for a starting job as opposed to where Kizer was in 2015 (a third-stringer who redshirted his freshman year). 

“He’s starting to go out there and execute what we want from a detail standpoint as opposed to feeling like he’s behind the eight ball in every rep,” Sanford said. “Now he’s anticipating. He’s managing protections really well. He’s out there playing, and it’s fun to watch. When he’s completely dialed in to what he’s doing and he’s playing free, we are starting to see some evidence of that. 

“His growth from last fall to today is immense. A lot of that has to do with the amount of reps that he banked when he was a little bit intimidated by the situation. Early on to take that many reps, those reps are really coming to his aid now.”

Spring practice is probably Wimbush’s best chance to make a push for Notre Dame’s No. 1 gig or, at the least, prove to coaches they can trust him with a certain set of plays. Kelly floated the possibility last fall of having a Wimbush-specific package; while that never materialized, it was a tantalizing solution to get him on the field. 

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But the redshirt possibility remains out there. It would seem like the prudent thing to do, given Wimbush was one, on track to redshirt in 2015 and two, would have a year of eligibility preserved. Wimbush and Kizer both have three years of eligibility remaining, though Wimbush’s would be delayed by taking a year off, providing him a clear window to start albeit in 2018 or 2019. 

“It would give me another year to learn the offense to the point where I’m comfortable with everything,” Wimbush said. “Redshirting is obviously not a bad choice for me as a second-year quarterback. To be behind those guys again, because they obviously have experience, they’ve been here for a little more time than I have. It wouldn’t be so bad.” 

Wimbush, though, isn’t resigned to redshirting. He also sounded quite happy on campus, too — he’s a member of the international business council and will participate in KPMG’s summer intern program for three weeks in May, adding that he wants to be a “big-time CEO” someday and is on track to enroll in Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza School of Business this summer. 

While all signs point to Wimbush having a steep, uphill climb to being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback two days before Labor Day, he’s not necessarily viewing that as a roadblock. He’s confident in his talent and his growing grasp of the offense, and too, he’s seen just how quickly someone can surface — and do so successfully — from a seemingly-buried spot on the depth chart. 

“Preparing as a starter is something you have to do from the day you step on campus,” Wimbush said. “I took great pride in doing that. When I get my opportunity to shine, I think I will.”

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.