Brandon Wimbush may or may not start for Notre Dame this weekend, but he will make the trip to North Carolina and — worst-case scenario — be available in a backup role, per Irish coach Brian Kelly.
Wimbush suffered a grade one right foot strain at some point in Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) this past weekend. After spending most of Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices on the sidelines, the junior quarterback took some snaps Thursday.
“He’s in a good place,” Kelly said afterward. “We got two more days. He’ll get some more rehab. He’s where we [had hoped] he would be. We expect more progress to be made in the next couple of days.”
Wimbush did upper body work Tuesday along with some stretching and throwing, but nothing more than that. Kelly said Wednesday consisted of some work with the running backs and more throwing. It was not until Thursday that Wimbush became more active, taking some repetitions with the first-team offense.
Kelly described Wimbush as still “day-to-day” and whether or not he will start will be decided Saturday before the Irish take on the Tar Heels at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC). If not Wimbush, Kelly would turn to sophomore Ian Book. If Book were then to be hurt, Wimbush has already shown himself healthy enough to be able to step in for such a role.
“If [Wimbush] doesn’t start, he’s going to be able to do something, absolutely.”
The decision of whether to start Wimbush or not will not be made with a view past the Tar Heels, even with a bye week coming before USC visits.
“We’re all in on this game,” Kelly said. “It’s not like we played our rival last week, so we’re not emotionally drained, and we’re off next week. It’s all in this week. … This is a game we need to win. It’s all in.”
Senior Montgomery VanGorder remains the third option at quarterback.
Kelly devotes about 40 percent of practice to the backup quarterback even when everyone is healthy, so Book has received plenty of opportunities to showcase his talents, most notably his understanding of the offense.
“He’s very accurate with the football,” Kelly said. “He’s got a good grasp of the offense, and he elevates the play of the guys around him. … Every time he’s gotten to scrimmage with his unit, he’s been effective in moving the ball.”
Book completed 3-of-5 passes against the RedHawks for 51 yards. This would be his first career start.
On RB health and the possibility of C.J. Holmes
Overall, Notre Dame’s running backs are about as healthy as they have been in a few weeks. Sophomore Tony Jones and junior Dexter Williams continue to play through sprained ankles, with Jones a bit further ahead of Williams in terms of health at the moment, Kelly said.
Freshman C.J. Holmes may see his first collegiate action in an effort to offer those ankles — including junior Josh Adams’ two “cranky” ankles — a bit of a reprieve. Holmes underwent shoulder surgery during spring practice, though fully healthy now. At the very least, Holmes will contribute on special teams.
“We brought him up with us with the intent that we think he can contribute,” Kelly said. “… We wouldn’t bring him up with us if we didn’t feel he was ready to play physically and if he didn’t have the skill set necessary to win with him. We’ll see how the game plays out, but he’s with us to contribute this year and to help us win.”
On North Carolina’s injuries
Considering much of Kelly’s press conference Thursday was spent discussing injuries, it may raise an eyebrow to hear him offer sympathy toward the Tar Heels as their injured list grows. The difference between the two is simple: Kelly is considering whether to play players through sprained ankles and strained feet. North Carolina does not have that option. Its injured are out for the year.
“The team we’re playing, God bless them,” Kelly said. “I’ve been in their shoes. They’ve lost a ton of starters.
“We’re healthy. We’ve got an ankle here, a bump here, and a bruise here. But we’re a healthy football team. [Kelly then knocked on the wooden podium he stood behind.] I’m happy where we’re at. We’ve been in a lot worse straits than we are right now.”
Things To Learn: How injured is Wimbush; Can Mack and/or Stepherson provide reliability?
The most notable item to learn this weekend is rather obvious: How is Brandon Wimbush’s foot?
The junior quarterback injured his right foot at some point Saturday after 5 p.m. ET. That much is known. How the grade one strain will affect him moving forward is the unknown.
Irish coach Brian Kelly said Wimbush was cleared to run Wednesday. The next update should come yet this evening during Kelly’s weekly post-practice Thursday update. For fun’s sake, let’s ballpark today’s odds of Kelly describing Wimbush as a game-time decision at -170, as cleared to play at +150 and as ruled out for this weekend at +250. In other words, today’s update will likely be of the non-update variety.
That would bring this watch to Saturday’s pregame warmups at 2:30 p.m. ET, give or take. (Kickoff this week will be a few minutes past 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.)
If Wimbush starts, he may not need to make many plays. North Carolina could not be much further from the Tar Heels that won 11 games in 2015. They are but a loss vs. Virginia (Oct. 14) and a defeat at Pittsburgh (Nov. 9) from looking at the prospect of winning only two or three games this season. Yes, injuries have played a role in those struggles, but such is football and such is sport. (North Carolina still has to travel to both Virginia Tech and North Carolina State while also hosting Miami.)
It is then easy to think, “Wimbush should not play. Throw in the backup. Surely he can do enough to get the win before the bye week. Let Wimbush rest and recover.”
Yes, sophomore quarterback Ian Book should be able to meet that standard, but Wimbush still needs the playing time, experience in various game situations and more repetitions in the passing game. There is only one way to get these things, and that is to play.
If Wimbush’s foot precludes Saturday action, then the bye week quickly becomes the most-pivotal week of the Irish season. If he plays in a limited fashion against the Tar Heels, then it can be surmised the walking boot is just a precaution for a truly minor injury and his development should be able to proceed without much inhibition.
With Wimbush possibly hampered or Book starting in his place, how much will Notre Dame rely on Josh Adams?
Kelly began beating the drum for the junior running back to receive more recognition immediately after the 52-17 Irish victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday. Following that with a game plan centered on Adams makes logical sense, but Notre Dame’s offense has already primarily featured the run game.
With Adams as healthy as he will be the rest of the year, season, perhaps it is time to get him a few carries from inside the five-yard line. The Irish have 10 touchdowns from that range this season. Only one has been in Adams’ hands.
In a nationally-televised afternoon slot, Adams rushing for 170-plus yards with multiple touchdowns would likely get him some of the notice Kelly feels the workhorse deserves.
Will this be the week Alizé Mack makes a sustainable impact?
Spring and preseason practice always overly-hype a few players. The junior tight end certainly received great reviews from both those sessions, but his 11 catches for 116 yards to date have not quite lived up to those laudings.
This is not to say Mack was not worth the hype. Between his size and speed, he is a walking mismatch. He has five catches of at least 15 yards, including one each of 32 and 33. Do the quick math now. While Mack has been good for a handful of big-chunk plays, his other six catches have gained a total of five yards. The Irish have not been able to maximize Mack’s possibilities. That could be a result of Wimbush’s inaccuracy, Mack’s rust or simply the five-game sample size.
If Notre Dame takes to blowing out the Tar Heels, working on the connection between Mack and Wimbush, or even focusing on building Mack any momentum, would pay benefits in the season’s second half.
If North Carolina keeps it close, then Mack could be a crucial third-down piece. Nationally, third downs are converted at a rate of 37.4 percent. Notre Dame has been successful on 41.3 percent of its third downs. The Tar Heels allow first downs 42.2 percent of the time.
In those particular spots, Mack could excel, keeping the Irish offense on the field, the first step to putting up a fourth tally of 40-plus points.
Was another week of practice the difference for Kevin Stepherson?
Probably not, frankly. Junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool have separated themselves from the rest of the receivers, and sophomore Kevin Stepherson is not about to join their ranks after only two weeks of practice and one catch against the RedHawks.
Akin to Mack, though, a rout would provide the chance to establish Stepherson some opportunities to move past any lethargy and then establish momentum. As much as Notre Dame has relished relying on the run thus far, at some point a passing situation will arise. Perhaps USC will take a two-touchdown lead into the fourth quarter. Maybe North Carolina State will completely shut down Adams & Co. Both scenarios are very plausible, and both would require the Irish to produce through the air.
Having some proven options in addition to St. Brown and Claypool will increase the odds of such an attack succeeding. Mack and Stepherson remain the most-dynamic possibilities for those roles, but they also remain the most-unproven in 2017, behind the likes of fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, junior receiver Chris Finke and fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
Against the Trojans and the Wolfpack, the Irish coaching staff will defer to those who have produced consistently already this season. Saturday is the last chance to establish that track record before a rather competitive four-game run leads into the always interesting matchup with Navy.
Why is this all about the offense?
North Carolina may find some offensive success this weekend, but it is hard to envision it being frequent. At this point, the Notre Dame defense is increasingly a known commodity. Its greatest weakness shows against vertical passing games. The Tar Heels do not feature such.
And In That Corner … The injured Tar Heels of North Carolina
Notre Dame’s trip to North Carolina may never have been the most-daunting road trip on the 2017 schedule (that’s likely to be Nov. 11 at Miami), but few expected the Tar Heels to be slogging along at 1-4 come the first week of October. That is the case, nonetheless. To figure out how and why North Carolina has struggled so much thus far, let’s pepper Andrew Carter of The Charlotte Observer with some questions …
DF: First off, thanks for taking the time to help Irish fans know what to expect this weekend. How long have you been covering the Tar Heels?
AC: Since November of 2011. This is my sixth full football season.
From this distance, two storylines seem to sum up North Carolina’s year. One of those actually points to last year — all that was lost from the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but much more talent went out the door, as well. By my count, four of last year’s top-five receivers departed and all four of the Tar Heels’ top-four rushers left (if including Trubisky). Just to toss out a few more names Notre Dame fans will remember, Ryan Switzer led those receivers and Elijah Hood played a key role in that rushing game.
Is that exodus to fault for North Carolina struggling to score the last two weeks, with 17 points against Duke and seven at Georgia Tech? What underlying issues are handicapping the Tar Heel attack?
There are two primary reasons why the Tar Heel offense is struggling. The first is all the departures you mentioned. North Carolina lost its starting quarterback, its top three receivers, its top three rushers and two of its best offensive linemen from last season. Several of those players were among the best in school history at their positions: Trubisky at quarterback, Switzer at receiver, Hood at running back, and the list goes on. Secondly, the Tar Heels have been decimated by injuries.
Even if North Carolina remained healthy, its offense would have faced a difficult rebuilding year. But, the Tar Heels have not been healthy. They have been anything but healthy. The offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork mess during the first month of the season. The best lineman there, senior left tackle Bentley Spain, missed all of one game with a hand injury and most of another, and he’s probably still not at full strength. Several others have been banged up, as well.
Injuries at receiver have become comically absurd (as much as injuries can be). North Carolina lost its top three receivers off last year’s team … and then it lost three of its best receivers during the first four games this season. Among them are senior Austin Proehl, the only returning receiver who played a large role last year, and junior Thomas Jackson, the only other returning receiver with double-digit catches last season. And then sophomore Rontavius Groves, arguably the Tar Heels’ most-talented young receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first collegiate game, after recovering from … a different knee injury.
It’s not difficult to surmise the hows and whys of North Carolina’s failures on offense. It lost a ton of production from last season, and since then it has endured hard-to-believe misfortune with injuries. With the injuries up front and at receiver, it has been difficult for the Tar Heels to establish any kind of rhythm.
Despite those issues, sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has put together some decent numbers, throwing for 988 yards and five touchdowns with a completion rate of 63.3 percent, seemingly ending LSU transfer Brandon Harris’ career. Is that latter assumption a safe one?
I think that’s probably fair. I’d be surprised if Brandon Harris spent any significant time at quarterback the rest of the season, barring a Surratt injury (which, the way things are going on that front …).
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t come out and say this — not yet, anyway — but at some point it becomes common sense to start planning for the future and do what’s best for down the road as opposed to what might lead to relatively minimal improvement this season. The Tar Heels have probably already arrived at that point. I do think Harris could help North Carolina in the short term, but how much would that really be worth? An extra win, maybe?
The Tar Heels are not going to win their division this season. An upper-tier bowl game is already out of the question. Harris will be gone after this season, while Surratt will have three more years of eligibility remaining. It would not make much sense to play Harris, while Surratt could use this time as an opportunity to develop and gain some valuable experience.
With that in mind, what kind of future does Surratt project to have in Fedora’s system?
A pretty good one, assuming he improves his arm strength. Surratt is plenty mobile and he seems pretty durable, but the offense is a bit limited with him right now because he doesn’t have the ability to stretch a defense vertically with his arm, not that he necessarily has healthy receivers to target downfield, anyway.
North Carolina has kept its playbook pretty basic with Surratt, which is understandable given he’s seeing his first playing time. Another offseason or two in the weight room adding strength could do wonders for Surratt, because all the other skills and intangibles are there.
The other storyline would be the Tar Heels’ struggling defense. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but then again, North Carolina has given up 35.5 points per game against four FBS-level opponents. Is it really that, uhhh, bad?
The defense has actually improved the past two weeks, though the numbers don’t bear it out. Against Duke, the defense kept the Tar Heels in it and gave North Carolina a chance until Surratt threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another interception in the third quarter turned the game Saturday during the Tar Heels’ loss at Georgia Tech.
Player attrition and injuries have affected the defense, as well. It lost its best lineman from last season, Naz Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks. One of the team’s best cornerbacks, Des Lawrence, was a senior.
This season, already, North Carolina has lost starting middle linebacker junior Andre Smith for the season, and one of its most talented defensive lineman, junior Jalen Dalton, hasn’t played in three weeks.
So no, the defense hasn’t been especially good, but it’s kind of a less dramatic version of the offense in terms of the injury situation. Exacerbating the defensive issues, when the Tar Heels’ offense is bad, it puts a huge strain on the defense — even more so than what a “normal” team could expect, given how abnormally quickly North Carolina attempts to operate its offense.
The Tar Heels use an up-tempo spread. When it’s going three-and-out several times per game, the defense has no time to rest. Eventually that adds up, and in the fourth quarters of all four North Carolina losses, the defense was exhausted. That’s the defense’s fault, in part, for not getting off the field on third down earlier in the game (and that’s been a huge problem), but the offensive woes certainly play a role, too.
Again, removing the statistics from the Tar Heels’ 53-23 victory over FCS-level Old Dominion, opponents have had equal success rushing and passing against North Carolina, averaging 251.75 rushing yards per game and 252.75 passing yards per game. Presuming the Irish rely on the run as common sense and recent history would indicate, do the Tar Heels have the personnel to sell out to stop Josh Adams & Co.?
Probably not, honestly. I’d expect this game to follow a similar script as North Carolina’s losses against Louisville and Duke. I think the Tar Heels can keep it close for a while, maybe for a half, even three quarters. Then their inability to sustain offensive success — combined with the lack of depth and inability to generate stops on third down on defense — will take its toll. If the fourth quarter does not completely belong to Notre Dame, it would be a surprise, based on everything UNC has shown to this point.
Presuming the spread closes around 16 or 17 in Notre Dame’s favor (or even 13 or 14 if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ruled out), can North Carolina realistically keep it that close? I imply a blowout largely because of the Notre Dame rush offense vs. the Tar Heels rush defense. Perhaps I am very much off-base.
I don’t think you’re off-base.
I appreciate the agreement. While we’re at it, how about a score prediction?
I think something in the 40ish to 20ish range sounds about right.
On Brandon Wimbush’s (in)accuracy and Notre Dame’s plans to adjust to it
Football fans and reporters alike may not enjoy admitting it, but they often do not know exactly what a specific play’s intentions were. What looks like an overthrow may actually be a misrun route. What appears to be a hopeless halfback dive in the first quarter may in fact be setting up a play-action pass just after halftime. Unless in the film room discussing each snap with the players and coaches, that reality is only guessed at, often from a short-sighted viewpoint.
In the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday, the purpose to the passing plays was clear: Get junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush some work. The blowout allowed for some leeway.
“It was really delving into some of the playbook for Brandon and some across-the-board reads that we hadn’t really gotten to,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “… We got into some of that in the third quarter. Again, it’s an apprenticeship, right? We’re still learning as we go, but he’s making some really good progress.”
Using that prism — one of expecting good reads followed by accurate throws, not necessarily looking for runs for first downs or setting up plays to deploy later on — how do Wimbush’s three third quarter pass attempts look?
The first appears to be thrown as a version of getting rid of the ball with a slight chance of a positive result. Wimbush goes through his reads, considering a throw to senior tight end Nic Weishar (No. 82) along the sideline, but the coverage on Weishar is too tight. If Wimbush had made that choice, the defender looks to be in prime position to jump the throw, a mistake the first-year starter has made a few times this season.
Instead, Wimbush moves to his left to get a better view of that side of the field, then throwing somewhat across his body toward fifth-year receiver Cam Smith. There may be occasions where that is a dangerous throw, but in this instance, Wimbush’s arm strength allows him to still get the pass out in front of Smith, though it falls incomplete.
Wimbush holds the second attempt much too long. Furthermore, he seems to focus on Weishar for the entire play, a thinking strengthened by the subsequent aerial replay. If Wimbush makes the decision he eventually comes to but a few seconds earlier, he could have — should have — had a touchdown. Again, the delayed pass comes so close to being a success only because of Wimbush’s natural arm strength.
The final pass, the simplest one, may be the greatest illustration of Wimbush’s struggles thus far this season. In the previous two moments, his arm strength compensated for his gradual decision-making. At this point in his career, Wimbush taking an extra moment to process a coverage is understandable. His failing to complete a screen pass in stride is not. There is no read. There is no decision to make. It is a throw needing to lead sophomore running back Deon McIntosh forward.
It brings to mind a route to the flat run by junior tight end Alizé Mack in the first quarter. Wimbush could not connect with Mack despite it being a throw with no complications.
These misses cost more than the obvious yards.
Consider North Carolina State’s linebacker Airius Moore or senior defensive end Kentavious Street. Through five games, Moore has two quarterback pressures and three pass breakups including one interception. Street has 3.5 tackles for loss including one sack, another quarterback pressure and two pass breakups.
At the end of October, there will be frequent situations where either Moore or Street has the assignment of at least shading Mack for a few yards off the line of scrimmage. As athletic as Mack is, both are capable of covering him on routes, perhaps with some safety consideration on deep routes.
If the Wolfpack do not respect Wimbush’s ability to complete what should be sure-fire passes to Mack — or to a running back in stride on a screen — the North Carolina State defense may adjust, sending Moore and/or Street on pass rushes. Their ignoring of Mack could lead to a quarterback pressure forcing Wimbush to miss a chance at a deep completion to Chase Claypool on the sideline.
The two-yard out route may have a reasonable ceiling of no more than eight yards, and missing it may not be as dangerous as missing on other throws, but those mistakes diminish the passing game’s potency, nonetheless.
Let’s be clear, none of this will jeopardize Wimbush’s starting gig.
“What’s most important is his ability to lead, first and foremost,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Does he clearly communicate? Does he have the trust of the other 10 players? Is he a great competitor? … If you look at the [Boston College victory] where he wasn’t throwing the ball very well, he found a way to win.”
While Wimbush finds those ways to win, the Irish coaching staff will cater to his strengths.
“We will go with what we need to do to make it work for Brandon until he develops the balance necessary within the offensive scheme of things,” Kelly said. “It’s just a matter of time.
“So it’s just easier for us to adjust to him than him adjust to us, because he’s got all those other traits. … It’s much easier for us to adjust to him and give him the time to continue to grow.”
Editor’s Note: This article began with intentions of speaking only to Wimbush’s passing (in)accuracy, but with Tuesday’s injury news, adding a packaged clip of sophomore quarterback Ian Book at the end seems appropriate.
Book attempted five passes in the fourth quarter, completing the first of his career to freshman Michael Young after a designed rollout made the out route a simple endeavor.
Book’s next attempt bounced off McIntosh’s chest. The color analyst may say Book intended to put the ball on the back half of McIntosh’s chest/shoulders, but if that was the case, it was a mistake. If a play is not designed as a back-shoulder throw, the receiver’s forward momentum will make a catch thrown there always more difficult than necessary. Yes, McIntosh should have caught it, but Book should have offered a better delivery, as well.
Miami covered Book’s third pass, a screen, well. Simple as that.
Then comes the deep completion to junior receiver Chris Finke. Not much can be said about that ball except wow, perfect placement.
Book’s day ended with another ball not thrown where it should have been, but still within the receiver’s reach.
Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush “day-to-day” with soft tissue right foot injury
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush injured his foot at some point during Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Tuesday. Wimbush will be day-to-day this week in practice, with the severity of the injury largely-unknown at this point.
“We’re not going to push him really hard today,” Kelly said. “We’ll get him probably moving a little bit, throwing … but I’m not in a position where we need to have him practice today. My vision would be more toward getting him out there Wednesday for practice.”
Kelly said the injury occurred during the game but Wimbush did not feel any discomfort until later in the evening. At that point, he cut short his night and headed home, informing the medical staff of the pain at the mandatory Sunday noon check-in.
“Specifically, we don’t know exactly when it happened,” Kelly said. “But it’s pretty common. That’s why we have a check-in at noontime on Sundays. We get a lot of soft tissue injuries that don’t show themselves right after the game and will show themselves later after a period of time.”
Both an MRI and an X-ray came back clean, indicating the right foot issue is entirely in the soft tissue. For now, Wimbush is in a walking boot. Practicing Tuesday will be more of a medical evaluation measure than a football exercise.
“We put him in a walking boot to be really, really conservative in this instance,” Kelly said. “We’re going to take it off today to kind of see what we have. Rob Hunt, our trainer, couldn’t give you a diagnosis really in terms of what it is until we get [Wimbush] moving and flexing.”
To play at North Carolina on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), Kelly said he would prefer Wimbush get some genuine work in Wednesday, though even that may not be absolutely necessary.
“I’m not in a rush to judge here where he’s going to be,” Kelly said. “We’re still pretty optimistic that he’s going to be able to do something. It’s early in the week for us.”
As much as anything else, a quick recovery will be determined by Wimbush’s comfort level. Obviously, the dual-threat quarterback relies on making sharp cuts to incur much of his damage, especially as he works to develop consistent accuracy. If that is not the case by Friday, it would be very unlikely Wimbush starts against the Tar Heels.
“He’s got to feel comfortable and he’s got to feel 100 percent like he can put his foot in the ground do the things that he can do,” Kelly said. “… He wants to play. He’s a competitor.”
On internet rumors
Given there was no apparent sign of an injury in Saturday’s game and neither Kelly nor Wimbush mentioned one immediately after the game, when sightings of Wimbush in a walking boot hit the internet, rumors swirled the injury occurred while living the college life on a Saturday night. Kelly dismissed those notions.
“I trust what Brandon tells me,” he said. “I have no reason not to trust 100 percent what Brandon tells me.
“He went out and felt his foot was not right, and he went home. That’s what he told me. I believe him. I have no reason not to believe him based upon my relationship with him over the last three years.”
On backup quarterback Ian Book
Kelly said the sophomore has received about 40 percent of the snaps in practice throughout both the preseason and the last month. A 60/40 split would be typical for Kelly’s tenure.
“[Book has] gotten a lot of meaningful reps,” Kelly said. “This is not an NFL operation where the starting quarterback gets all the work.”
Book completed his first career passes against the RedHawks, leading the Notre Dame offense in three fourth quarter drives. He completed 3-of-5 passes for 51 yards, including a 48-yard completion to junior receiver Chris Finke. Book added 37 yards on three rushes.