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4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)

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While DeShone Kizer spent today at the NFL Draft Combine hoping to secure a first-day selection at the end of April, Notre Dame’s remaining three quarterbacks presumably focused ahead four days to the beginning of spring practice. (Look for a summary of Kizer’s combine performance in this space by the end of the weekend, if not the day.)

“Three” does not include incoming freshman Avery Davis. Davis should be looking ahead to prom or some other leisurely activity. Live life, young fella, your time to buckle down is coming soon enough.

“Three” does include senior Montgomery VanGorder, junior Brandon Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book. With hopes of not stepping too heavily on the toes of Wimbush’s summer entry in the “A to Z” series, what should spring practice bring from those three?

Presuming no injury or other unexpected occurrence in the next six months, Wimbush will start for the Irish against Temple on Sept. 2. There is no version of a competition for the starting job this year. While some would see that clear-cut status as a harbinger of calm, focus and unity (apparently including Kizer according to his comments in Indianapolis, but, again, that will come by the end of the weekend), others may argue it will only increase the pressure on Wimbush’s shoulders.

Everyone is looking to the passer with only five college attempts to lead the 2017 Irish. Coaches, teammates and fans alike know the season’s success largely hinges on Wimbush’s performance. Is he up for it? This spring will give the first indications of that answer. This space will not.

Wimbush arrived at Notre Dame in 2015 a consensus four-star recruit with offers from across the country, including Penn State, Stanford and Ohio State. Every expectation indicated he would spend his freshman season third on the depth chart wearing a red baseball cap on the sidelines, but when Malik Zaire broke his ankle in the second game, getting Wimbush game ready became one of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s top priorities.

“[Wimbush is] going to have to play this year,” Kelly said three days after Zaire’s injury. “… Let’s try to get him as much experience as possible, and we’re going prepare him this week as if he’s going to play and go from there.”

Wimbush did not see action that week in a 30-22 victory over Georgia Tech, but he did lead the Irish attack for the final quarter-and-a-half a week later against Massachusetts. His first drive netted six yards before a punt. His second, however, most Notre Dame fans undoubtedly remember to this day, if for no other reason than the dynamic promise displayed.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has disabled embedding unfortunately

Wimbush ended that day three-of-five passing for 17 yards and gained 92 yards on four carries, including that 58-yard touchdown scamper.

“[He] did some good things today and got a little out of his realm a little bit later with some misreads in our run game where he thought he was supposed to throw the ball out and he’s supposed to actually run the football,” Kelly said. “But those were great learning experiences for him.”

Wimbush saw action in only one more game in 2015, gaining 13 yards on three attempts against Pittsburgh. In 2016, with Zaire healthy enough to at least back up Kizer, if not also compete for the starting job, Wimbush did as was expected in 2015. Thus, he now has three years of remaining eligibility.

This spring, Wimbush will have the opportunity to show Kelly he spent that season on the sidelines learning the system well enough to avoid those Massachusetts misreads. Even with new offensive coordinator Chip Long changing the offensive lexicon and, to a lesser extent, the scheme, Wimbush displaying an unhindered grasp of the playbook will go a long way to calming any of his or others’ nerves come fall.

Those nerves need calming partly because the depth chart behind Wimbush is bothersomely shallow. VanGorder remains on scholarship to date and to public knowledge, but Book should be expected to take any snaps Wimbush is unable to. A consensus three-star recruit, Book is an unknown commodity at this point. His first reps with the starting unit this spring will begin to change that.

Those opportunities are the hidden gems of spring practice. If everything goes as Kelly and his staff hope in the fall, Book’s lessons this spring will go unnoticed by the world. Wimbush’s helmet could come off on a zone-read, though. Book would be needed for at least one snap. Any comfort he can gain in March and April simply taking the snap from senior center Sam Mustipher—or junior Tristen Hoge if offensive line coach Harry Hiestand gets creative—would suddenly bear great relevance.

Akin to Everett Golson in 2012, that helmet-losing possibility is a genuine one with a dual-threat like Wimbush. The touchdown against Massachusetts displayed his threat on the ground. Overthrowing speedster receiver Will Fuller demonstrated the strength of his arm. That incompletion surprised even Kizer.

“[Wimbush] was very comfortable going out there,” Kizer said in the Massachusetts postgame scrum. “He was obviously put in a position where there wasn’t too much pressure on him, and he balled out just like we expected.

“He has a really live arm. We got to see it today on that pass to Will. I mentioned earlier a couple weeks ago that it’s hard to overthrow Will, but look at that kid. He overthrew him, and he has the speed and all the talent.”

This piece has already mentioned all of the pertinent stats at this position, so let’s sign off with Wimbush’s highlight reel from National Signing Day 2015.


Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Thursday: Tight Ends/Receivers
Friday: Running Backs
Today: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.