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Notre Dame will look to Wimbush’s poise more than his talent


There has been plenty of talk of Brandon Wimbush’s physical skills, this space included. Taking off on a 58-yard touchdown run in your first action as a freshman will do that.

Leading the Notre Dame offense will require more than a strong arm, accurate passing and quick feet. The rising junior quarterback will need to both learn offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense and also be able to convey its intricacies to his teammates. Wimbush will need to endure mistakes and enjoy successes with equal steadiness. He will need to handle criticism and deflect praise.

These abstract concepts are, obviously enough, often the most difficult for 20- and 21-year-olds to grasp. Per his coaches, Wimbush has not struggled like that.

“Where I’ve been most impressed with him is he listens very well,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said after days before the spring finale. “He’s a guy that will listen, make the appropriate adjustments and come back and go to work on what you have instructed him.

“The second thing is his presence. He runs that offense like he’s been running it for a few years. There’s no panic, there’s a calmness, there’s an organization to it.”

Perhaps claiming Wimbush leads the huddle in a new system like he has been doing it for years is a bit of a leap, a touch of exaggeration. But Long sees the qualities to make that embellishment a reality.

“The best thing about Brandon is he’s never too high or never too low,” Long said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “That’s what you want with your quarterbacks. … He just needs to go out there and operate the offense. I don’t want to have any more added pressure on his shoulders.”

Wimbush managed 22-of-32 passing for 303 yards in the intrasquad scrimmage, yet the first-team offense generally struggled to finish drives or impose its will on a defense also learning a new scheme. To Kelly, that imperfect performance yielded encouragement on its own right.

“I loved everything that happened to him today,” Kelly said. “It’s how you take it, right? He’s just wide-eyed, listening, paying attention and just totally committed to the process of getting better.”

Not that there is any indication otherwise—aside from the natural tendencies of most 20- and 21-year-olds, that is—but Notre Dame fans should hope Wimbush is already deflecting those praises, lest they get to his head before the real action against Temple in 115 days.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks
Notre Dame QBs appreciate Rees’ teaching, experience
Book ready for Notre Dame, even if not needed in ’17
A spring perspective: Wimbush and his Offensive Line

Book ready for Notre Dame, even if not needed in ’17

It is the most popular position in sports. Frankly, its return on investment might be the highest, too. As Notre Dame’s backup quarterback in 2017, rising sophomore Ian Book may often hear hypotheticals singing his praises. If junior Brandon Wimbush stays healthy, though, Book’s merits will remain largely unknowns for anyone not privy to Irish practices.

Nonetheless, Book feels he could start. Following his performance in the Blue-Gold Game (18-of-25 passing for 271 yards and a touchdown), such confidence could be considered understandable.

“Obviously I think I can be the starter,” Book said that day. “Brandon’s a great player. Today he did really well. If something were to happen and it’s the next man in, I would be able to do a good job.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Book stars in Notre Dame’s spring finale

By no means does Irish coach Brian Kelly hope to prove Book can do that good job in 2017. Wimbush is slated to be the starter and there will be no quarterback controversy this summer. But having confidence in his backup will save Kelly much fret this summer.

“Having that No. 2, and seeing him perform the way he has this spring, for me, has been one of the big stories,” Kelly said. “Ian has done this all spring.”

Book needs to keep doing it, and he knows as much. Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Tom Rees praised Book’s progress this spring before quickly pointing to an area of needed improvement. Naturally, it’s an area most college quarterbacks need to improve on. Just this spring it has been a topic of conversation regarding both Wimbush and last year’s Irish starter, DeShone Kizer. Footwork.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame QBs appreciate Rees’ teaching, experience

“I do like to get outside the pocket and use my feet, but obviously I still have a lot of work to do,” Book said. “There are times where I miss the throws because my feet aren’t set, but you have to keep working to get through those.”

Some of that messy footwork could be attributable to the change in offensive systems following the disappointing 4-8 finish last year. Going from scout team to new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo approach has forced Book to learn a lot quickly. Then again, he had to do that throughout last summer and fall, coming from high school to a college program.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks

Back then, though, he had three quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. He leaned on them for guidance of all varieties.

“I learned a ton from how to be the best person as well as a team, and I learned obviously a bunch of football things on the field,” Book said. “DeShone, [former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire] and Brandon, they all helped me when I first got here. They took me under their wings, teaching me the footwork stuff, all the plays, all the reads.

“It was definitely a good quarterback room to be in as a freshman.”

Jumping from scout team quarterback to one play away from taking the snap for Notre Dame, Book will be a key part of keeping that a good quarterback room moving forward.

As evidence of the ROI claim made up top, take a look at Doug Pederson. In 100 career NFL games, he threw a total of 522 passes. In seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Pederson threw 77 passes in 66 games while also winning a Super Bowl ring.

Thanks largely to those two stints in Green Bay, Pederson is now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles with a five-year contract of who knows how many millions per year. (If Jay Gruden gets $4 million/year and Marvin Lewis earns $4.5 million each season, Pederson’s total contract cannot fall far short of $20 million. It pays to have studied Brett Favre.)

Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Kizer spent some time as the Cleveland Browns backup…

Notre Dame QBs appreciate Rees’ teaching, experience

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This is a fool’s errand. No matter how the current Notre Dame quarterbacks respond—publicly and/or privately—to their position coach, many Irish fans will criticize him. No matter what success those passers do or do not enjoy under Tom Rees’ tutelage, many posting their thoughts around these parts will bemoan his presence.

Acknowledging these facts at the outset accomplishes as much as those grumblings do: nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true. This upfront head shake does boost a word count monitored by no one. It also gives a callback to when Keith Arnold introduced his successor around these parts. That’s always fun, right? (“I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties – the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. – including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. [Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.]”)

With that meandering out of the way, let’s bring in how the Irish signalcallers feel about Rees. Following the completion of spring practice in the Blue-Gold Game, both rising junior and starter-if-healthy-in-116-days Brandon Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book credited some of their vernal development to Rees.

“The whole quarterback room, led obviously by coach Rees, [offensive coordinator Chip] Long and [Irish coach Brian] Kelly, all the quarterbacks have come a long way from day one to where we are now,” Wimbush said. “We’ll have to continue that through the summer.”

Rees’ influence may be felt even more by Book. Presumably, Wimbush gets a touch more in-ear tutelage from Long and Kelly during practices, taking the majority of the first-team snaps. Even if standing only a few yards behind the line of scrimmage, Book likely takes those moments to pick Rees’s brain, get his read on the play call, the coverage, etc.

As it pertains to off-field guidance in the film room and in the playbook, Book indicated Rees has been his go-to source material.

“He taught me so much,” Book said. “Meeting with him once a day and going through coverages and reads, learning from someone who has done it before, it’s helped me, and I really like the way he teaches. It has just helped me visualizing and then going out on the field and being able to see exactly what he is talking about.”

Even if under a different offensive coordinator than Rees’ time behind center at Notre Dame, the playbook has not changed dramatically. To hear Rees describe it halfway through spring practice, he recognized the broad strokes of the offense.

“The offense conceptually is still coach Kelly,” Rees said. “You still see a lot of the aspects there, but coach Long has brought a lot of his stuff to what we’re doing. We want to play fast. There are some details here and there that coach Long has done a great job of coaching up. It’s been a great blend to work with.”

RELATED READING: Rees on Long’s influence in offensive scheme

That familiarity is the reason Book turns to Rees. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks

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As is usually the case in football, the play of Notre Dame’s quarterback in 2017 will largely determine the direction of its season. A dominant defense can occasionally ease that burden (see Notre Dame, 2012) or an undeniable running game might shift opponents’ attention (see Alabama, 2012), but the Irish are not likely to enjoy either of those luxuries this fall.

Thus, it will fall to the quarterback to set the tone. That is, it will fall to rising junior Brandon Wimbush.

Entering spring, Wimbush and his five career passing attempts sat atop the Irish depth chart, presumably by a comfortable margin. The clear-cut nature of his status as starter could be seen by some as a precursor to Notre Dame peace of mind, but the lack of a known backup can induce even more anxiety than a quarterback competition.

RELATED READING: Four days until spring practice: A look at QBs

This is not to entice panic. Wimbush could remain healthy the entire season, yet sophomore Ian Book or senior Montgomery VanGorder could still be called upon in a competitive situation. Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long fully intends to utilize zone-reads and run-pass options. If Wimbush takes one hit to the head, time may be needed to rule out a concussion. Whoever backs up Wimbush would be needed to keep that drive moving forward.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game (April 21)

Not only did Notre Dame hope to see an understanding of the playbook and overall leadership from Wimbush this spring, but Long and Irish coach Brian Kelly undoubtedly sought consistent competent performance from another quarterback on the roster.

Book will back up Wimbush, pending all pertinent parties remaining healthy. Before anyone takes Book’s performance in the Blue-Gold Game (18-of-25 for 271 yards and one touchdown) to spark talk of a quarterback competition, Kelly put the damper on that immediately following the game.

“No, there’s no quarterback controversy,” Kelly said in no uncertain terms. (more…)

Time spent at fullback & slot has Tony Jones ready at RB

It wasn’t that Tony Jones needed a year to get ready for college football. He didn’t. That is not why he spent his freshman season preserving a year of eligibility on the sidelines. Rather, Notre Dame already had two proven options at running back as well as a third option in the speedy Dexter Williams.

“That was a conscious decision on our part not to play him [last year],” Irish coach Brian Kelly said, “more than he wasn’t necessarily ready to play.”

So Jones sat. Did he want to? Would anybody?

“At first, it was tough, but I talked to my family and stuff,” Jones said following the Blue-Gold Game. “… I just learned from [junior] Josh [Adams] and [former Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston] and Dex, learning from their mistakes and what they did good, taking advice from everybody, just learning how college is really like.”

His impatience was not as apparent to others, including the rising junior Williams.

“[Jones] definitely handled it well,” Williams said. “It gave him a chance to learn the system. Even though we’re in a new system now, he still picked up on the system just sitting out, and he had the chance to get bigger, faster, stronger. He handled everything pretty well.”

A bigger, faster and stronger Jones will likely chip away at some of Williams’ carries. In fact, he might even take some away from the established starter, Adams.When asked if Jones could fit into the running back rotation in the fall, Kelly said if is no longer a consideration whatsoever.

“Honestly, he’s in it,” Kelly said in early April. “He’s a guy that if at any time we wanted to call him a No. 1, we could call him a No. 1. He’s done all the things to build that trust with us in terms of protections, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s earned that through his work this spring.”

RELATED READING: Tony Jones shining in spring practice

Typically, pass protections and running routes will limit young running back’s opportunities. If an inexperienced back only excels at running the ball, anytime he enters the game, the defense will key on the ground game. If it happens to be a pass, apparently the would-be tacklers will have a clear path to the quarterback anyway.

With Jones, Kelly said that is not the case. Without playing a collegiate snap, pass protection is something Jones has down. How? Well, he has been protecting the passer longer than he has been rushing the ball.

“Growing up in little league and stuff, I played fullback,” Jones said. “I never ran one route then, I just stayed in and blocked.

“Thanks to my dad for that one. He was my coach who put me at fullback.”

But how does a fullback-turned-rusher excel so much at running routes that Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long calls the rising sophomore the “most natural” at receiver of the three backs? Shouldn’t the comparably-veteran Adams and Williams have the edge on their presumed backup?

Thank the surplus of Florida high school football talent for that. One of the perks of going to a high school football powerhouse such as IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) is sometimes upperclassmen talent forces young talent to find other positions. IMG already had a highly-touted running back when Jones was a freshman.

“I played slot like half the year, and then I moved to wideout, and then I came back to running back,” Jones said.

Assuredly, he enjoyed that positional shuffling more than he enjoyed spending 2016 on the sidelines, but perhaps not by much. Either way, both—and, for that matter, include his time at fullback in pee-wee ball here, as well—played parts in Jones now being on the precipice of a notable debut season.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs