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On Brandon Wimbush’s (in)accuracy and Notre Dame’s plans to adjust to it

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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.

As long as he keeps leading Notre Dame to victories, don’t expect Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s starting job to be in any danger, no matter how inaccurate his passes sometimes may be. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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.

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.