Measuring Brandon Wimbush against history and revisiting some ND QB what-ifs

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The flash in Brandon Wimbush’s game has always been accompanied by a pragmatic side.

And for the junior-to-be, who is now a little over 100 days away from debuting as Notre Dame’s next starting quarterback, it started with a phone call.

To Blake Barnett, of all people.

The one-time elite quarterback prospect from Corona, Calif., verbally committed to Notre Dame extremely early in the 2015 recruiting cycle, then dropped the Irish six months later and eventually landed at Alabama.

Wimbush, in Penn State’s recruiting class at the time and itching to flip to the Irish, wanted to know why. So he got Barnett on the phone and asked him point blank.

“He gave me his reasons, some pros and some cons,” Wimbush told the Tribune just days before signing his national letter-of-intent in February of 2015. “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.”

Wimbush, after committing to the Irish, was then proactive in making sure other schools knew he was serious about it. So he changed his phone number.

Barnett, meanwhile, left Alabama four games into the 2016 season. He landed this winter at Arizona State, where he successfully appealed for immediate eligibility and is battling incumbent Manny Wilkins to be the Sun Devils’ starter this fall. He does so with 19 career pass attempts on his college résumé.

Wimbush, whose college stock is soaring now, has even less of a college track record, though — five pass attempts spread over two cameos in the 2014 season before redshirting last season.

There are a few pre-ND sets of numbers worth noting in measuring his potential:

• At a Stanford camp during his high school years, Wimbush, when tested for arm strength in a standing passing drill, broke Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s camp record with a fling of 73 yards.

• At the Elite 11 QB competition in the summer before his senior year at Jersey City St. Peter’s Prep, Wimbush placed second out of 163 participants in the power-ball toss, a test of strength and power. He was first in the 20-yard shuttle and had the second-fastest 40-yard dash for a QB (4.62).

By comparison, former Irish starter Everett Golson ran a 4.82 40 at ND’s Pro Day in the spring of 2016. Last year’s Irish starter, DeShone Kizer, recorded a 4.83 at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

• The Irish passed on Wimbush in their evaluations when he was a high school junior. The game that changed their minds? In September of his senior year, and with then-ND quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur watching, Wimbush went 19-of-24 passing for 344 yards and five TDs in a 49-20 rout of Bergen Catholic. He also ran for a sixth TD.

And here are some historical numbers to frame the first Wimbush start, set for Sept. 2 at Notre Dame Stadium against Temple, as well as some odd QB trends pertaining to Irish signal-callers — past, present and disillusioned:

• Dating back to Rick Slager’s starting debut on Sept. 15, 1975, Irish quarterbacks are a combined 22-10 in their first starts.

• All five QBs who have made first starts in the Brian Kelly coaching regime won their first start. And collectively Kizer, Malik Zaire, Golson, Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist, recorded five of the best seven debut pass-efficiency ratings of the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present), encompassing 16 players.

• Rees had the highest (168.68) rating of the five, with Golson’s 141.09 being the lowest. That Golson number though, projected over an entire season, would have been good enough to place 38th nationally last season.

None of the six quarterbacks whose first starts most immediately preceded the Kelly Era — Evan Sharpley, Jimmy Clausen, Demetrius Jones, Brady Quinn, Pat Dillingham and Carlyle Holiday — broke the 90-efficiency points barrier in their first starts.

• Since Gary Godsey (99.74) outdueled Purdue’s Drew Brees, 23-21, in Godsey’s quarterbacking debut on Sept. 16, 2000, only two QBs have been juniors academically (or older) among the 12 who have made their starting debuts since. Wimbush will be the third in that category.

Godsey, who started and finished his ND career as a tight end, lost his starting QB job less than a month after his debut, to freshman Matt LoVecchio.

• The top five pass-efficiency marks among the 32 Irish QBs dating back to Slager starts with Ron Powlus’ 231.55. And yes, that was the game in which former ESPN analyst Beano Cook infamously predicted multiple Heisman Trophies for the then-redshirt freshman.

Kevin McDougal was next (216.75), followed by Paul Failla (184.00), Arnaz Battle (173.57) and Rees. Failla’s mark deserves an asterisk, though. He threw one pass and completed it in a brief start brought on by a minor punishment for Rick Mirer.

The bottom five are Eric Chappell (minus-133.33), Tony Rice (minus-3.20), Joe Montana (31.92), Blair Kiel (40.82) and Demetrius Jones (44.53).

• Speaking of Kiel, his nephew Gunner, who opted to transfer to Cincinnati in 2013 after being on the ND campus for roughly 14 months, went undrafted in the NFL Draft last month and still hasn’t been picked up as a free agent.

As it stands he’s one of 10 quarterbacks who transferred out of Notre Dame, either grad style or conventional, who were recruited in the post-Holtz Era.

Of those 10, seven either never won the starting job at their new schools or were overtaken after winning the job. And none of the 10 have played as much as a single down in an NFL game.

• Which brings us to Malik Zaire, who will be No. 11 on the transfer list once he decides upon a destination.

Zaire will be a grad transfer, meaning he won’t have to sit out a season and can play right away in the fall of 2017. He could have played at his new school this spring and learned the new offense, but opted to wait to get a better read on his future situation.

Florida continues to look like the leader, but Zaire needs help to end up there.

At the upcoming SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., the conference is committed to looking at loosening some constraints on grad transfers.

Where it specifically applies to Zaire and Florida is that the Gators, with the way the current rules are configured, can’t take him. That’s because of a rule that limits schools from taking additional graduate transfers if previous graduate transfers failed to meet academic requirements after enrolling.

Harvard actually has been mentioned as one of his fallback choices if Florida falls through. And if trying to create NFL buzz is the reason for the transfer — and everything points to that — Harvard actually does have a QB who was an NFL starter the past two seasons (27 games for the New York Jets), while Florida and ND can't make that claim.

The caveat with QB grad transfers is that Russell Wilson-type happy endings are rare. Wilson won the NCAA passing efficiency title at Wisconsin in 2011 after essentially being shown the door at N.C. State.

The Seattle starter is the only 2016 NFL starting QB who was once a grad transfer. There were three other starters last season who were conventional transfers, but only the Ravens’ Joe Flacco’s move from Pitt to FCS school Delaware was the standard pursuit for more playing time.

Carolina’s Cam Newton was reportedly on the verge of expulsion at Florida when he parachuted out to juco land (Blinn College) before re-emerging at Auburn. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers was undersized and underrecruited when he signed with Butte Community College, before transferring to Cal after a year.

As far as having national championship aspirations, only two conventional transfers have led their teams to national titles in the 19-year BCS/Playoff Era.

Again very non-traditional in why they transferred: Newton again makes this list, as does Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel, who chose Weber State when his college offers were limited. He then transferred to Snow (Junior) College, before landing with the Sooners.

The lone grad transfer to win a national title has been Jake Coker at Alabama in 2015. Blocked by eventual first-round draft choices at Florida State, in E.J. Manuel and Jameis Winston, Coker was a rare grad transfer who brought with him two years of eligibility.

And he was a backup his first season at Alabama in 2014. When he did emerge as a starter in 2015, one of the quarterbacks who sat and watched was a freshman named Blake Barnett.

Brandon Wimbush stands with teammates and sings the Alma Mater following the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game on April 22 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)