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.
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
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins