Analysis: QB Brandon Wimbush's rise comes with respect from Notre Dame teammates

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The overlooked piece in the transformation of Brandon Wimbush from safety net to Notre Dame’s No. 1 option at quarterback was something that might have looked counter-evolutionary at first glance.

Scout team. Rudy duty. It’s where high valor meets the lowest rung on the college football food chain, at least from the outside looking in.

That’s where the junior-to-be spent regular portions of the last half of a 4-8 season, toggling between his normal third-team reps and emulating opposing quarterbacks for the No. 1 defense’s benefit, while shedding the red jersey worn to keep Irish defenders in practice from making contact with him.

It was a reintroduction to game speed and live bullets for a player who took a redshirt in his sophomore season, a force-feeding of having the talent/experience deck stacked against him, and a chance to show his Notre Dame teammates that his toughness could be every bit as overt as his unmistakable talent.

So Monday, when the second offseason tumbler fell into place — junior starter DeShone Kizer’s declaration for the NFL Draft — Wimbush, as he rose to the top of the depth chart, had an important cornerstone to go along with his modest five collegiate passes and seven rushing attempts from the 2015 season.

Respect.

“I always thought (Wimbush) was the perfect mix of what you would want,” said senior QB Malik Zaire, who also exits the Irish roster, though he’ll transfer instead of testing the NFL waters.

“I always told him that he could be starting and doing a bunch of stuff everywhere (else). It’s just a special opportunity for him to stick this out, because he’s going to learn so much in the end from me and DeShone, and seeing what the guys before him went through to prepare him for that next step.

“I’m glad that Brandon’s been doing it the right way. It’s going to be exciting to watch him grow within that team. He’s really going to be something special in the years to come.”

Zaire could actually see the growth curve up close and personal on Oct. 7 if he lands at North Carolina, ND’s road opponent that day and one of two schools the former starter has visited since announcing his intentions to play the 2017 season elsewhere.

Like Zaire, Kizer’s departure was hardly unexpected.

The redshirt sophomore becomes the 14th three-and-out player in the 29 draft cycles the NFL has allowed underclassmen to be a part of the draft, the ninth of 14 to happen since Charlie Weis was purged after the 2009 season, and the seventh to play for current Irish coach Brian Kelly.

If Kizer lands in the first round in April, as expected by most analysts, he would become ND’s seventh first-rounder in a six-draft span (and injured linebacker Jaylon Smith should have been an eighth) after ND produced just two in the first 12 drafts of the 2000s — center Jeff Faine in 2003 and QB Brady Quinn in 2007.

Among the litany of statistical achievements Kizer walks away with: No. 2 on the ND career pass-efficiency list behind only 1993 starter Kevin McDougal (147.7), the second-best pass-efficiency rating as a second-year starter (to Rick Mirer) of any Irish QB since World War II (145.6), and the second-most career rushing TDs (18).

And yet there are plenty of observers who believe Wimbush could eventually be better at the college level.

The more pressing question, though — is the 6-foot-1, 225-pound New Jerseyite ready now?

“I think this is a situation where he’s more than ready,” said private quarterback tutor Madei Williams, who has worked with Wimbush since the latter was an eighth-grader and still does when Wimbush comes home.

“Just the way he’s handled himself over the last two years. He’s done it with a tremendous amount of professionalism, a tremendous amount of understanding, even out of frustration.

“Naturally, everybody who’s a competitor you want to be the guy, but you have to wait your turn. And I think he did that. He handled everything with a tremendous amount of maturity. And while he was biding his time, he was able to observe the other two guys, how they handled that level of competition and some levels of adversity.”

Patience has long been one of Wimbush’s virtues. He trusted his mom, Heather, when she plucked him out of the Teaneck, N.J., public school system and plopped him into St. Peter’s Prep, a 50-minute commute each way via train, in Jersey City.

At St. Peter’s Prep, he didn’t get a chance to start until his junior season.

When he did, he became a classic dropback passer with sprinter’s speed (a personal best 10.81 100-meter dash for the St. Peter’s track team) when plays broke down. Irish fans saw snippets of both during his brief cameos in 2015.

“I think where he’s different, where he’s better than the last time people saw him take the field for Notre Dame is with the mental aspect of the game,” Williams said.

“He’s better able to process information both from a pre-snap read perspective and from a post-snap perspective. He has a better grasp on the protections in the event they bring more than they can protect.

“He’s got a better understanding of all the coverages, all the things the defense and the enemy is going to try to throw in his direction. I think this year of being able to sit back and prepare more from a mental aspect has given him an opportunity to grow.

“And he’s a film junkie on top of all that. I don’t think the offense is going to miss a beat.”

Durability would come in handy too. Wimbush’s backups, current freshman Ian Book (6-1, 200) and June enrollee Avery Davis (5-11, 192) have zero college snaps between them.

That could alter how much ND ultimately involves Wimbush in the running game in 2017, though Kizer had roughly as many carries in 2015 with a freshman backup (134) as he did last season with more depth behind him (129).

Something else to consider, Kelly’s record at ND when starting a true freshman or redshirt freshman quarterback is 22-4 (.846) with all four losses to teams that finished in the top five in the final polls.

Wimbush also may have a different offensive coordinator/QBs coach in 2017, should Mike Sanford’s interview for the vacant Western Kentucky head coaching job become an actual offer (with some reports already making that leap).

Wimbush has already kind of been there, done that. Former Irish QBs coach Matt LaFleur was a driving force behind getting Wimbush to flip from his mother’s alma mater, Penn State, to the Irish during the recruiting process.

Interestingly, before he flipped Wimbush did his homework. He called Blake Barnett, a highly regarded QB prospect from California who dropped the Irish in favor of Alabama months before. (Interestingly, Barnett was one of three Tide backups who parachuted out of Tuscaloosa in the past few weeks.)

“I knew how involved he was with Notre Dame at one point, and I wanted to know why he would give that up,” Wimbush said just prior to signing with ND in February of 2015. 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.”

Monday, may have seemed like a new start to those on the outside, but for Wimbush it’s a continuation of the work he put in on the scout team. And he has the bruises to prove it.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush during Notre Dame football practice on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN