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.
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.”