A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s favorite buzz words were “process” and “grit” throughout the spring practices. This year, it seems “consistency” may replace them, while the Irish players make it a habit to point out this is their second year in the new schemes brought by the hires of last offseason.
Finding consistency this year should be an imperative, considering the wide gap between Notre Dame’s highs last year — namely, the back-to-back blowouts of No. 11 USC and No. 14 North Carolina State in October — and its lows, particularly the majority of November.
Specifically, Kelly sees consistency as the key for the two quarterbacks competing for the starting job, rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book, as lack of such at that position was also a primary contributing factor to that November swoon.
“There was such inconsistent performances at that position,” Kelly said Saturday following the fifth practice of the Irish spring. “We were up and down. We didn’t establish consistent play day-in and day-out.
“That’s going to be the separator: The person who can continue to show every single day that these are the base fundamentals of the position, that I’m going to bring with me and build that consistency.”
Neither Wimbush nor Book has separated himself in that regard to date, though the former has made it a better part of his mechanics, per Kelly. That may sound like a difference without a distinction, but it should be noted, the praise Kelly offered toward Wimbush rings directly contrary to some of the concerns about Wimbush last fall.
“There definitely is a difference in the way [Wimbush] is performing at that position compared to last year,” Kelly said. “If that continues to trend, that puts us in a really good position at quarterback.
“… His [dropback] is consistent, which allows him to get the ball out timely. He was late on a lot of throws last year and, consequently, put himself in bad positions. His accuracy is better, especially on some of the shorter throws.”
Improving Wimbush’s accuracy could be quite a catalyst for Notre Dame’s offense. Last year, he completed only 49.5 percent of his throws, part of why he averaged only 6.8 yards per pass attempt.
That weakness was not lost on Wimbush. No matter how much of a threat he provided with his legs, the inaccuracy put a ceiling on the offense’s potential.
“[Confidence] was a big part of where I was missing and what I wasn’t doing last year in terms of consistency,” Wimbush said. “Sometimes you go a few days, you have great days, and then you can’t come back and have bad days, because everything leads up to that Saturday.”
Consistency might be an obvious necessity for the starting Irish quarterback, whomever it may be, but so is availability, and there is a reason availability is the best ability. Perhaps finding consistency this spring is a corollary of that truism.
Wimbush pointed to an “immense leap” coming from his second year in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system.
“Obviously, [I] have a better grasp of the offense,” Wimbush said. “I’m thinking more comfortably and things are fluent.”
Book cited the same item for why both quarterbacks are connecting better with the receivers in these first spring practices.
“Year two in the offense, the chemistry has really improved, but we have a lot more work to do,” Book said.
The comfort level goes beyond the offense, even with, perhaps because of, first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea taking control on the other side of the ball. When Lea arrived as linebackers coach under then-defensive coordinator Mike Elko a year ago, the scheme they implemented was quite the change for Notre Dame’s defense. It often showed in practice. Now? Not as much.
“Our guys right now, if you watch our defense now and we go back and watch last spring, we’re looking at it like, ‘Maaan …’” rising junior defensive end Daelin Hayes said. “The overall comfort and confidence in what we’re doing has been huge for us.”
It may have had the most impact on Hayes, himself, now in only his third year on the defensive front after playing linebacker throughout high school.
“It’s showing in my play, how quickly I am able to diagnose and be able to react and just make plays,” Hayes said. “… As the season went on, sometimes being in situations where I was uncertain, and you know how that goes when you play the game and you start thinking too much, that can slow down your level of play.”
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery suffered a concussion Tuesday and remains in the concussion protocol, but Kelly anticipates the fulcrum of his defensive front to be cleared for contact in the first half of this week.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— A worst-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring, with links to read
— Kelly on Notre Dame’s break in spring practices & linebacker options
— Love’s press coverage hinges on Notre Dame’s safeties
— Notre Dame’s Pro Day showcases Nelson, Adams and Smythe, among others
— From micro to macro, Clark Lea remains a teacher
— Colts GM Chris Ballard visits Notre Dame Pro Day to watch Quenton Nelson
— Nyles Morgan starts his comeback from shoulder surgery at Notre Dame Pro Day
— Pro Day: Quenton Nelson impresses, Durham Smythe surprises
— Notre Dame Pro Day complete results
— Toughest opponent records for 2018, with Notre Dame’s at No. 45