QB commit Brandon Wimbush way more than a Plan B for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Before Brandon Wimbush let himself fall in love all over again, this time with Notre Dame, the New Jersey prep standout quarterback forced himself to make a phone call.

On the other end of the line, and at the other end of the country, was the QB who in June walked away from a chance to headline the 2015 Irish football recruiting class, Blake Barnett of Corona, Calif.

“He gave me his reasons, some pros and some cons,” Wimbush said earlier this week via telephone from his home in Teaneck, N.J. “His input meant a lot to me, because we had gotten to know each other pretty well through all the national camps and events.

“I knew how involved he was with Notre Dame at one point, and I wanted to know why he would give that up. I felt that I was able to trust him and what he had to say. But I also knew what Notre Dame was bringing to the table for me. In the end, it was an easy choice and I can’t wait to get started.”

The next significant steps happens Wednesday, when Wimbush signs his national letter-of-intent with ND, while Barnett makes his commitment to his second love, Alabama, official.

As many as 25 prospects could comprise coach Brian Kelly’s sixth class at ND, four of whom enrolled early last month.

Kelly will try to reel in one more wide receiver (Equanimeous St. Brown), another running back (Dexter Williams) and an additional safety (Arrington Farrar or Nathan Meadors) Wednesday, National Signing Day, while fending off any potential surprise defections.

If it weren’t for arguably the best quality of depth at the quarterback position in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present), Wimbush’s presence in the class would likely command more deference.

As it is, never has it felt like Plan B. And seemingly, with each passing day since a three-week courtship in September/early October flipped him from a Penn State commitment, Wimbush’s national profile continues to surge.

247Sports had Barnett 23rd in its final rankings of all prospects regardless of position with Wimbush making a late push to No. 43. In Rivals.com’s final top 100, 19 places separate the two (41 to 60).

Barnett’s best rating comes from CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who has him at 14. But Wimbush is at No. 30, well above where ND’s current QBs — Everett Golson, Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer — landed coming out of high school.

“You talk to coaches in New Jersey, coaches that had to face him this year,” Lemming said. “They tell me he’s one of the best quarterbacks they’ve ever seen, and I would say the same thing.

“He was good, but he really picked his game up his senior year. When he gets to Notre Dame, I think he would benefit from redshirting his freshman year. But I think he could start for them his second year. I think he has the talent to lead them to a national championship. He’s that good.”

And to think he enrolled at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J. four years ago with the notion that if he had an athletic future behind high school, it would be as a Major League third baseman.

“I didn’t start playing football competitively until middle school,” he said. “I had been playing baseball since I was 6. Eventually football took over my life, and giving up baseball was a sacrifice I had to make if I was going to play at football at the collegiate level.”

Wimbush’s senior stat line reads like a future college QB: 3,178 passing yards, completing 72 percent of his passes (192-of-265) with 37 touchdowns to five interceptions. A total of 158 of his 723 rushing yards on the season came in the 32-18 state championship victory over blitz-heavy Paramus Catholic.

Wimbush, who considers himself a pocket passer, averaged 11.2 yards per carry and scored nine rushing touchdowns as a senior.

Throw in the staunch competition Wimbush faced on a weekly basis and the fact 2014 was only his second season as a starter, and you begin to see why most observers feel the QB’s best football is ahead of him — especially when you consider his mental maturity, raw arm strength and sprinter’s speed.

That’s right, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Wimbush will run the 100-meter dash and 200 this spring for St. Peter’s as part of his prep to make a splash when he enrolls at Notre Dame in June, and beyond. His best time in the 100 heading into this season was 11.2 seconds.

“He reminds me of a young Donovan McNabb,” said private quarterback tutor Madei Willliams, who played a couple of seasons behind the real Donovan McNabb in the late 1990s when the two were at Syracuse University.

Williams and Wimbush met when the latter was in eighth grade and just getting started at playing quarterback. Wimbush’s mother, Heather, sought out Williams to assess and sharpen her son’s game.

“He had a natural throwing motion from baseball, but we had to shorten it up, because he had a very, very long windup in his delivery,” Williams said. “His mechanics were all over the place, just from the simple fact no one had worked with him. He was just going off natural talent — alone.

“We had to get his footwork right, get his balance, get him to value ball security. And the great thing with Brandon, he’s so coachable. You don’t have to show him twice. It’s been years in the making. He still has plenty of room to grow, but where he started from to where he is now, it’s been amazing to watch his progression.”

Perhaps the most amazing part was the patience he showed at different junctures, starting with his mother’s decision to take him out of Teaneck’s public schools and enroll him at all-boys, Jesuit private school, St. Peter’s Prep.

“It was a 45- to 50-minute trip each way every day,” Wimbush said. “Two different trains and sometimes a bus. I got a little upset my freshman year, but by the end of that freshman year, I started to figure out it was probably the best thing for me, and now looking back it’s easy to see that it was.”

Despite having the ability to throw 75-80 yards flat-footed, Wimbush didn’t get a chance to start until his junior season. And Wimbush understood how unfinished a product he was, even as parents and players from other schools goaded him to transfer.

The white noise around him took on a different tone, but grew exponentially during a junior season when Wimbush flourished in a balanced offense that featured running back Jon Hilliman. Hilliman would go on to rush for 860 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman at Boston College in 2014 while the onus shifted to Wimbush to carry the offense as a senior. He responded by more than doubling his passing yardage and passing TDs.

By the time the season kicked off, Wimbush had been committed to Penn State for four months, having narrowed his choices from Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Ohio State. Ironically, Alabama came knocking first, an offer that got his attention.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, was content to go without a QB in the class after it lost Barnett, and couldn’t get much footing with Travis Waller, Deondre Francois and Jarrett Stidham. But then Irish quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur saw Wimbush dismantle Bergen Catholic, 49-20, on Sept. 11 on national TV, as the QB threw for 348 yards and five TDs and ran for another score.

LaFleur reached out just to see if there was any chance ND could get involved. St. Peter’s coach Rich Hansen and Wimbush’s mom — the latter a Penn State grad — coaxed him to take a visit.

It was love at second sight.

“I was actually surprised he ended up at Notre Dame,” said Williams, who plans to make a trip to campus with Wimbush sometime during spring practice. “But you know what, with this kid, everything happens for a reason, and I know he believes that.

“The decision to go to St. Peter’s. The decision to stay at St. Peter’s. The way he handled all the attention while staying very humble — it’s a part of the plan for him. Notre Dame is just the next step. And I think he’s going to be special there.

“You know why? Because of how he deals with pressure — on the field, off the field. It’s such a complement to a natural ability he continues to work hard at developing every day.”

Wimbush is working hard at both learning the playbook and ND’s rich football history, rattling off the names of Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and former QB Jimmy Clausen as his evidence that he’s making progress.

“My expectations are to get a degree — that’s why I’m coming there,” he said. “As far as football goes. I’m just going to come in and try to process and learn as much as I can as a freshman. If that means redshirting, fine. But I’m going to go in and compete and see where that takes me.

“Obviously the other quarterbacks have been there longer. They have experience. But I’m still going to go in there and do all I can to make my mark.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Brandon Wimbush (7) of St. Peter's Prep rushes the ball against Paramus Catholic during their NJSIAA Non-Public, Group 4 football final at MetLife Stadium. (Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media/NJ.com)