Irish A-to-Z: James Onwualu

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After quietly putting together a strong junior season, James Onwualu is ready to step to the front. Gone are captains and fellow linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. So are front-seven companions Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day.

One of the few veterans with any considerable experience on the defense, it’s up to Onwualu to lead now, making an impact both by the example he sets on field and by the work he puts in off of it. With the chance to play full-time at outside linebacker, Onwualu should add nickel and dime snaps to his repertoire, allowing the former receiver to excel when the opposing team drops back to pass, as either a pass rusher or coverman.

 

JAMES ONWUALU
6’1″, 232 lbs.
Senior, No. 17, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit who Notre Dame offered before any of the other major programs, Onwualu picked the Irish over Michigan and Ohio State, enrolling early out of Cretin-Derham Hall.

A big-bodied wide receiver without elite speed, Onwualu’s transition to defense was always something that was a possibility, made even more impressive by the fact that he found a way to start four games at wideout as a freshman.

 

PLAYING CAREER 

Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 12 regular season games, making four starts. Caught two passes for 34 yards, while contributing on special teams making six tackles. Served mainly as a blocker at wide receiver, taking Daniel Smith’s job.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games while starting eight at linebacker. Made 24 tackles from his outside linebacker position, including two TFLs. Onwualu had seven stops against Navy, including his two TFLs on the season.

Junior Season (2015): Played in 11 games, starting nine at outside linebacker.  Made 38 tackles including six TFLs and three sacks, also breaking up two passes and forcing one fumble. Missed time with an MCL sprain in November.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Smith stayed at Will and Onwualu spent his time at SAM, though it was Greer Martini who made most of the impact against option teams, not Onwualu.

I think Jaylon Smith spends a lot of time on the outside of this defense, making me wonder where Onwualu plays. But I also think that the more opponents move quickly and try to spread Notre Dame out, the more likely Onwualu is a piece of the defensive puzzle.

It’s worth noting that Onwualu’s most productive game was against Navy. You don’t expect an undersized linebacker to be great against the option, especially after Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder talked about utilizing Greer Martini as a jumbo-sized OLB against more rugged opponents.

Still, it’s a telling indicator that Onwualu has the Football IQ to make tackles in the backfield against Navy. And after an unlikely ascent into the starting lineup in each of his first two seasons in South Bend, you’d be wise not to bet against a football player who has shown himself to be a productive piece of the puzzle.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s room to grow this season for Onwualu, likely very comfortable in his third season under Brian VanGorder. As the only returning starter at linebacker, how much this defense leans on him will be telling. A knee injury limited him down the stretch, but he still platooned, especially against the more physical offenses.

Adding some mass to his frame is important. We’ll see how well he did when the roster is released later this week, with Onwualu ideally in the 235-pound range, up from the 220 he played last year at.

The Irish coaching staff believes Onwualu is underrated, mostly because of off-the-radar skills like rerouting receivers. If this senior season is going to be impactful—and if Onwualu wants a chance to play at the next level—he’s going to have to build on the sneaky-solid numbers he put up, making more plays behind the line of scrimmage and in coverage.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

One of my hunch picks for team captain, Onwualu is one of my breakout candidates this season—if he can stay healthy. With added strength this offseason and a better understanding of everything Brian VanGorder wants, Onwualu should be one of the team’s top-three tacklers by season’s end.

A better pass rusher than given credit for, Onwualu might be a sleeper candidate for a half-dozen sacks, a big number to be sure, but maybe not unattainable when you consider he had three last season in limited opportunities. Add in a few interceptions and filling up the stat sheet would be a great way to finish a career.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara

 

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense undeniably of title quality

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BRONX, N.Y. — It is not a comparison to suggest lightly, let alone one to then respond to casually. It is a discussion ripe with overreaction on the surface, questionable in merit but for extreme situations, the highest of praise when deserved. To say it aloud dares accusations of take artistry rather than genuine analysis.

So let’s make it, let’s discuss it, let’s write it publicly and therefore figuratively say it aloud.

Notre Dame’s defense belongs in the same conversation as Clemson’s, Alabama’s and Michigan’s.

Only a few teams can speak of first-hand experience against more than one of that set. Texas A&M lost to both Alabama and Clemson, Northwestern lost to both Notre Dame and Michigan; and Syracuse has now lost to both No. 2 Clemson and the No. 3 Irish (11-0) after Saturday’s 36-3 handling. Orange head coach Dino Babers was reluctant to directly compare the two, but he did not hesitate to put them both in a single piece of lauding.

“All I will say is this, Clemson is extremely talented,” Babers said. “I think there’s no doubt that those two teams are in the top four in the country and rightfully so.”

The stats have lumped that grouping of defenses together most of the year, but now the on-field slowing of worthwhile competition supports Notre Dame’s numbers rather than the other way around.

Before, the Irish were limiting offenses like Florida State’s, Navy’s and Pittsburgh’s, hardly bastions of production in 2018. Then came Syracuse (8-3) at Yankee Stadium. First, the obvious numbers:

The Orange averaged 44.4 points per game before facing No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish gave up zero points in 59 minutes and 50 seconds.

Syracuse averaged 482.2 yards per game. Notre Dame allowed 234.
The Orange had run 822 plays through 10 games, easy math for figuring out the average of 82.2. Only able to gain multiple first downs on four of 13 drives, Syracuse ran 73 plays against the Irish.
2.4 sacks allowed per game? How about six for the loss of 36 yards?
Two turnovers each week? Add another to get to three.

The list could go on through just about every statistical category. What Notre Dame did to that offense was a display of dominance by an array of athleticism warranting worry for anyone awaiting.

“They’ve got really good players,” Babers said. “We attempted to do some things and they closed off some gaps with their length. They’re very, very long as a defensive football team and because of that length they’re able to cover up a lot more space in the gaps.”

Length is like strength and speed and other conceptual nouns describing raw talent. Even when everything else is going wrong, they are still on the field. They are why Clemson’s floor has been so high all season, and why ‘Bama has long relied on its defense, having discovered an offense in 2018 to complement its usual staple.

The Irish realize as much. When did they begin to think about a shutout of the Orange?

“When there was 15 minutes on the clock in the first quarter, that was the mindset,” fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said.

Well sure, but when did they realize it was genuinely possible?

“When they throw a trick formation at us, second drive, and we communicate it, get our cleats in the grass, execute it, and [junior safety Jalen Elliott] picks it off,” Tranquill said.

That begins to go beyond length or any other vague quality. That sounds like game plan, anticipation and development. Indeed, first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea deserves as much praise as anyone else, if not more. Babers acknowledged him by name. Tranquill discussed how prepared the defense was. The stats make that readiness clear.

If the defensive line’s length, the linebacker’s experience and the safeties’ playmaking all serve to raise the Irish floor, that work during the week establishes a defensive ceiling worth comparing to those featured by the two programs claiming the last three national championships.

But Notre Dame remains flawed. Its offensive line is good, not great.

The obvious missteps were the four premature ones drawing false start penalties, three by sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey and one by junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg. Irish head coach Brian Kelly felt some of those jumps directly credited Syracuse ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. That may be true, but if so, then fifth-year center Sam Mustipher saw it as a failing of the entire line, not just the tackles.

“We’ll never allow somebody to take the blame for that,” he said. “It’s just getting back to basics, focusing on what you have to do on the play.”

If some of the jumps trace to inexperience or some other noun or adjective describing youth, Mustipher’s confidence was unwavering.

“I told the guys, if you can’t block him, let us know, but I believe in you guys enough that I think you can block anybody,” he said.

The greater concern may be Notre Dame’s run game. Remove two runs of 35 and 32 yards by seniors Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams on the final Irish drive, well past any competitive moment, and the team rushing stats plummet to 110 yards on 30 carries (also adjusting for sacks and kneel downs). A total of 18 out of those 30 rushes went for two yards or fewer, with eight of those 18 not crossing the line of scrimmage. The Irish ran on first down 17 times, creating second-and-long nine times, five of which were 2nd-and-more-than-10. Against better teams, those situations become drive-killers.

The 3.67 yards per meaningful carry average is the third time in the last five games it did not crack 4.0. Adjusting for sacks, Notre Dame ran for 112 yards on 35 carries against Pittsburgh, a 3.2 average, and 121 yards on 40 carries at Northwestern, a 3.0 average.

Down the line, that may not get it done.

Oh, and Ian Book is capable of throwing incompletions.

This is more a reflection of how high expectations had gotten for the junior quarterback. His first five starts this year all featured completion rates greater than 70 percent, including two in the 81-point range. It was absurd.

At Northwestern, Book went 22-of-34, a 64.7 percentage, and his strike rate at Yankee Stadium was 62.2 percent.

Then again, Book went 23-of-37 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He had a very good day, despite an interception. And his season rate of 72.6 percent is still well ahead of the program record of 68.0 percent, set in 2009 by Jimmy Clausen.

Now then, one to go.

It is that simple. When you embarrass the No. 12 team in the country, you end all conversations about worthiness. Babers explained away the fourth quarter field goal attempts as injury prevention, but they will be remembered as the final piece of defeat delivered by Lea’s defense. And Kelly claimed ignorance as to Irish Playoff odds, but that was simple modesty.

Notre Dame is in with a win at USC. That motivation should outweigh the Trojans’ playing for Clay Helton’s job.

“If [the Irish] play the way they played us, they will probably have an opportunity to play for a national championship,” to quote Babers once more.

Notre Dame’s defense shuts down hyped Syracuse offense in rout

Associated Press
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BRONX, N.Y. — The lights were bright, the stage big, even the weather cooperated, and No. 3 Notre Dame was ready for Yankee Stadium and all its trappings. No. 12 Syracuse may have been fine with all those extras, as well, but the Orange was not ready for the Irish defense. Notre Dame (11-0) had no trouble dismissing Syracuse (8-3) in a 36-3 rout, much to the delight of the vast majority of the 48,104 in attendance.

The Orange never found an offensive rhythm of any kind. Through three quarters, Syracuse had managed all of 122 total yards. As the Irish eased up in the final frame and some second-stringers took some snaps, the Orange boosted its game total to 234 yards, still a far cry from its previous average of 482.2 yards per game.

It took 48 minutes for Syracuse to come within even 40 yards of the end zone, a drive that ended with an inexplicable field goal attempt appropriately clanking off the left upright. The next Orange drive nearly ran out the clock before a field goal slipped through the uprights, depriving the Irish of their first shutout since the 31-0 victory against Michigan in 2014. Three Notre Dame interceptions — two by junior safety Alohi Gilman and one from junior safety Jalen Elliott — amplified the Orange struggles.

“As a coach, you go into the game thinking if we do these things right, we’re going to play really well,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we ever pinned a shutout on a performance against a team that’s putting up 44 points, but I felt really good in the preparation and the plan, and I felt if we were disciplined, which we were, we would do well.”

Notre Dame needed that dominant defensive performance while its offense sputtered at unfortunate moments. In the end, it put up 36 points, essentially keeping pace with the 38.8 averaged in junior quarterback Ian Book’s six other starts this season, but it could have and possibly should have been much more. Of seven drives into the red zone, only three yielded touchdowns. Three more produced field goals and Book — looking no worse for the wear from the ribs injury that sidelined him last weekend — threw an interception in the end zone in the second quarter.

“There were a lot of stupid penalties and errors that we made today that slowed drives down for us,” Irish fifth-year center Sam Mustipher said. “When we beat ourselves, the defense doesn’t have to do much, I think there were a few cases of that today.”

Those failures to end drives kept the rout from becoming a comedy even before the wayward field goal attempt, yet Book still finished with 292 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-37 passing, best connecting with junior receiver Chase Claypool, who made six catches for 98 yards and a score.

“Ian played pretty good,” Kelly said. “I think the week off definitely showed a little bit of rust, but he got out of it clean. Feels good after the game, and he’ll be able to build off it.”

The Irish running attack never found consistency, its final numbers of 177 yards on 32 attempts (sacks and kneel downs adjusted) skewed by six rushes for 90 yards on Notre Dame’s final drive when it was actually trying to drain the clock. The overall average of 5.5 yards per rush worked at the rate of 3.3 yards per carry for the previous 11 drives. Senior Dexter Williams led the way, finishing with 74 yards on 13 carries (30 on nine rushes before the coda), adding a nine-yard touchdown catch to start the day’s scoring.

But that inefficiency hardly mattered when the Irish defense stopped Syracuse’s offense in its tracks, well below its average of 44.4 points per game.

“Notre Dame is better than what people think they are,” Orange head coach Dino Babers said. “That’s a really, really good football team and coach Kelly, my hat goes off to coach Kelly and Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator. That was a fabulous defense he put up against us and they played extremely well.”

PLAY(ER) OF THE GAME
There was a time, not all that long ago, when it was a running joke to point out how long it had been since a Notre Dame safety intercepted a pass. That first changed when junior Jalen Elliott picked off Ball State twice in the season’s second week. The gag then nearly reached irrelevance when junior Alohi Gilman thought he had an interception against Stanford, only for it to be wiped off the board by a pass interference penalty against fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, a correct call if also one that did not inherently aid Gilman’s snag.

“I was thinking, does he have an interception this year? I was actually thinking that this week,” Tranquill said. “I was like, if he doesn’t get one this year, that’s on me.”

Gilman got his at Yankee Stadium, twice.

The first came with Tranquill again involved in the coverage, a route down the sideline with Tranquill underneath the receiver. Gilman’s aerial play prevented what very well may have been a touchdown on Syracuse sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito’s third attempt — in for injured starter, senior Eric Dungey. Gilman picked off DeVito again two drives later, hitting Orange junior receiver Sean Riley as he caught the pass and then corralling the bobbled ball. Gilman’s 54-yard return set up an Irish touchdown.

Gilman also made eight tackles, an all-around performance from a piece of the Notre Dame defense absent last season due to NCAA insistence. With Gilman, the back line has improved immensely, making for a complete defense, one capable of holding a high-caliber offense scoreless until the white flag of a field goal attempt was waved, twice.

“We could run another play and we could even score a touchdown, and then maybe even do an onside kick,” Babers said of attempting field goals while trailing 29-0 and 36-0 late in the fourth quarter. “And maybe score another touchdown, but we’re not going to win.

“The other thing is that when you’re running those plays, you got a chance to get people hurt. We can get somebody hurt on the play, Notre Dame can get somebody hurt on the play. The score did not matter right there.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Those Irish red-zone possessions yielding only field goals kept Syracuse close enough for concern for a half. The halftime 20-0 lead may have been three-possessions wide, but with the Orange getting the ball to start the third quarter, a score would have kept the game interesting. A three-and-out later, Notre Dame responded with … another red-zone appearance yielding only a field goal, keeping the margin at three possessions.

Another Syracuse three-and-out, one marked by three consecutive negative plays with two tackles from Tranquill and a third-down sack by Irish junior end Julian Okwara, and Notre Dame responded with … a 10-yard touchdown pass from Book to Claypool.

Even though senior kicker Justin Yoon missed the subsequent point after, the 29-0 lead was clearly going to be enough against an offense yet to find any semblance of sustained success.

The backward three-and-out cost the Orange 13 yards and that bit of field position certainly made the touchdown drive easier, considering it covered only 51 yards and 15 of those came courtesy of a pass interference penalty. The Irish were not exactly moving the ball efficiently, so their defense set them up with a short field.

STAT OF THE GAME
If not for that closing field goal, this would have been the third shutout in Kelly’s nine years at Notre Dame. The most-recent came in that memorable temporary finale to the Michigan series, and the only other was a 38-0 victory against Wake Forest to reach 11-0 in 2012.

It would have been eerily fitting to reach 11-0 against a mid-tier ACC team in 2018 by the score of 36-0.

Sure, it would have come against a team largely relying on a backup quarterback, but DeVito has seen notable action this year, going 11-of-16 for 144 yards and a touchdown in a 30-7 win against Florida State and 11-of-19 for 181 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-37 win against North Carolina.

For that matter, Syracuse rushed for only 119 yards on 3.1 yards per attempt. It had averaged 216.1 yards per game on 4.69 yards per rush. This was hardly an inept offensive performance because of DeVito’s play. It was because of Irish Lea’s plan and his defense’s execution of it.

“They turned the game from chess to checkers and now guys have to make plays,” Babers said. “There was numerous passing combinations that we called and you looked out there and everybody was covered. If there’s coverage, there’s nowhere for the quarterback to throw the ball to.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Kelly was asked if he assumed his team would reach the College Football Playoffs if it wins next week at USC.

“I don’t know that if we win our last game that we’re going to the Playoffs,” Kelly said. “But that’s not in our control. So we don’t even worry about stuff that’s not in our control. What we can control is how we prepare. If we do a good job there and we win our game, then we would have won all of our games, and then we’ll let people decide who should go to the Playoffs.”

If there was any genuine concern, Kelly would have slipped in some politicking. His complete deferral of the concept indicates Kelly trusts Notre Dame will be in the Playoffs if it wins next weekend.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 9-yard pass from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Syracuse 0. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:11)
7:44 — Notre Dame field goal.Yoon 26 yards. Notre Dame 10, Syracuse 0. (4 plays, 6 yards, 1:11)
1:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 13, Syracuse 0. (9 plays, 83 yards, 3:56)

Second Quarter
4:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 9-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 20, Syracuse 0. (1 play, 9 yards, 0:07)

Third Quarter
9:30 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 23, Syracuse 0. (8 plays, 41 yards, 3:18)
3:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 10-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT no good. Notre Dame 29, Syracuse 0. (9 plays, 51 yards, 3:52)

Fourth Quarter
4:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 36-yard rush .Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 0. (7 plays, 80 yards, 4:15)
0:10 — Syracuse field goal. Andre Szmyt 28 yards. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 3. (11 plays, 59 yards, 3:48)

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

@yankeestadium
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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

Per usual, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.