Odd as it may sound, Brian Kelly’s increased confidence in Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book could actually lead to greater comfort with Irish senior and starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
A year ago, neither had taken competitive snaps and the head coach had seen only Wimbush spend time with the starters. There was little trust in Book, more due to a lack of opportunity than as an actual reflection of Book. Opportunity arrived at North Carolina and in the Citrus Bowl last season.
“Everybody is quite confident in [Book’s] ability to run our first team,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That’s no longer an effect. If you asked me last year at this time if Ian went in there with the ones, there might be some hesitation as to can he lead us.
Obviously, both quarterbacks have now played winning football for the Irish and have had another offseason to develop only further.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year with both quarterbacks, certainly just by experience alone,” Kelly said. “We came into this (2017 iteration of media day), and your No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback hadn’t played.
“That’s a different feeling for a head coach than coming in here and they’ve won football games and they’ve had success, they’ve been in the mix.”
How does that change Wimbush’s season for his own betterment? Shouldn’t it simply mean he has a shorter leash, with a proven and competent backup behind him?
Rather, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long are no longer petrified of losing Wimbush for a quarter or a week to injury. They can utilize the full breadth of his skills, in particular his rushing abilities.
Last year, Wimbush had 141 carries by the NCAA’s count, but that included 24 sacks. Of the remaining 117, 49 came in the season’s first three weeks, including 21 for 201 yards and four touchdowns at Boston College. As the year progressed, Wimbush took off running less, in part because of opponent’s adjustments and in part because of Kelly’s and Long’s wishes. They recognized the lower ceiling the season would have with Wimbush sidelined by injury.
Now, that lowered ceiling is not quite as low. Thus, there is less reason to rein in Wimbush.
“We’re less concerned about carries with him and more interested in highlighting his strengths and being productive with him,” Kelly said.
That ability does not mean Wimbush’s focus changes, though.
“It’s just consistency with accuracy,” Kelly said. “He’s made progress there. He’s not where he wants to be, but he’s made significant progress even from the spring, and that’s better than what we saw during the year.
“Incremental progress. We’re all striving for better, but again, we’ve made the progress necessary.”
That progress theoretically opens up Notre Dame’s offense for all its weapons. As the preseason progresses, Kelly continues to add names to that list which already included senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior receiver Chase Claypool and the continuing-to-emerge sophomore converted running backs Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, not to mention a couple unproven tight ends high on potential. Add freshman receiver Kevin Austin to the tally.
“[Austin is] a finely-conditioned athlete in the sense that he comes back the next day, recovers extremely well, knows how to take care of his body,” Kelly said. “… When we see a freshman that can handle the volume, we’re just going to push him in there. He doesn’t know 50 percent of the playbook, but he’s got that volume and that skillset. He’s a guy that can help us this year.”
Other freshmen who have similarly impressed: offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and cornerback TaRiq Bracy. Of course, no one can apparently match Armstrong’s endurance and positive impressions made these last few weeks.
“Jafar is in a different category,” Kelly said. “I haven’t seen a guy like him in terms of the volume that he carries, and he doesn’t break down at all.”
Davis, meanwhile, is working on the learning curve in that process. The former quarterback is not quite used to running routes and taking handoffs all practice, not to mention the exponentially increased number of tackles innate to the position change.
“It’s a mindset now that his recovery is much more important for him in some instances because we know what he can do as a football player,” Kelly said.
HAINSEY’S TIMETABLE TO RETURN
Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey has missed the last few practices with an aggravated tendon in his lower leg. He will retake his spot as the starter on the edge Tuesday, per Kelly, largely as a matter of caution.
“We wanted a full seven-to-eight days, somewhere in that range, so we didn’t risk inflaming the tendon again,” Kelly said. “We’re on that timetable. He’s weight training, conditioning.”
In Hainsey’s absence, sophomore Josh Lugg and senior Trevor Ruhland have taken snaps at right guard with junior Tommy Kraemer moving from guard to right tackle — some of that would have been planned anyway so as to find a level of comfort mixing the starters with the backups as the season may deem necessary.
Aside from Hainsey, the only injury of note is a case of patellar tendonitis slowing junior defensive end Daelin Hayes. Such ailments typically pop up here and there in preseason practice.
“Nothing that’s keeping anybody out of long-term competition,” to use Kelly’s words.
ROBERTSON TO RECEIVER
Sophomore Isaiah Robertson moved to receiver Wednesday, his second position switch this offseason after first moving from safety to rover. At rover, Robertson would have needed to jump senior Asmar Billal, sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon without becoming too redundant when compared to senior nickelback Shaun Crawford. It would have been a tough needle to thread, if not a distinction without a difference all along.
“He’s got some skills, he showed that today,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing offensively, but in the blue zone showed soft hands, went up and caught the football with dexterity, didn’t feel like it was clumsy to him. It was natural. He’s a guy that will continue to progress on the offensive side.”