Inside Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush's journey to the top of the depth chart

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is one of the spotlight stories featured in the ND Insider 2017 Football Preview. To buy the mag, in print or tablet form, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag.

Brandon Wimbush showed up for the dinner meeting decked out in an immaculate three-piece suit and with an open mind.

It was mid-May 2016, a little less than a month after Notre Dame’s 15 spring football practices concluded with fellow quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer tangled in a protracted tug-of-war for starting status, and Wimbush, just as he had begun spring, a relative afterthought short-term and ticketed for a redshirt year.

Around him churned speculation about how soon and how earnestly he would be searching for an escape hatch to start all over somewhere else, away from a crowded depth chart and a football program about to free-fall into a renovation project.

“He was so far away mentally that night from thinking about transferring,” said Tom Mendoza, the man sitting across the table from Wimbush at Il Mulino in New York City.

“His whole thing was, ‘I just got to make sure that I’m learning every day, and I’ve got to be the guy when they need me to be the guy. This team is going to need me at some point.’

“And I’m like, ‘How good is that?’ ”

This is how Brandon Wimbush is hard-wired. As a 20-year-old man. As a Finance major. As a football player.

Even his dreams have a pragmatic edge. Want to change the world? There’s a formula for that. Want to be remembered? Map it out and do the math.

“I make every decision like a business decision,” Wimbush offers, “because every decision that I make is going to affect me and my family for the rest of my life. Right?”

He came to the right place for business advice. Mendoza is a titan in that world.

The 66-year-old Notre Dame graduate is the vice chairman for the storage and data management firm NetApp, deemed in 2009 by Fortune Magazine as the No. 1 company to work for in America. Since 2000, ND’s renowned college of business has borne his name.

“I feel honored to have that connection,” Wimbush said of Mendoza, the man, “and that’s why you come to Notre Dame.”

Actually, Wimbush forged the connection shortly after enrolling at ND, in June of 2015. The New Jersey native reached out to New Yorker Mendoza on Twitter, making a first impression well within the 140-character limit.

“I’m just introducing myself, and I’m so excited to be at Notre Dame, because I want to be in that business school,” Mendoza said, paraphrasing Wimbush’s ice-breaking tweet.

But 11 months later, Wimbush wanted to talk football with Mendoza. He wanted to make sure his impending redshirt year would be about incubating and not curdling. And so he probed Mendoza about leadership and what makes for great ones.

As the conversation evolved, what struck Mendoza is that Tim Zanni was right. Wimbush had interviewed with Zanni — global and U.S. Chair of technology, media and telecommunications for KPMG — weeks before, for an internship the quarterback eventually landed with the firm. And Zanni told Mendoza that Wimbush was “the most impressive kid I’ve ever hired as an intern in 17 years.”

Nothing that transpired in the old-school Italian restaurant that night altered that vision for Mendoza, a studied and ardent Notre Dame football fan himself.

And in football, like business, the common thread, Mendoza reasoned, in the seasons in which the Irish transcended expectations, were strong leaders who stirred the uprisings.

Yet augmenting his leadership skills was only part of Wimbush’s business plan to reconstruct what a redshirt year should look like. He would, in the weeks and months that ensued, at times do something most players of his stature would normally spurn or at least fight.

Scout team duty. The most-unglamorous stratum in college football. And for Wimbush, doing it after holding No. 2 QB status as a freshman in the fall of 2015.

But Wimbush, in fact, asked for what looked like a backward step. He embraced it, and turned out to be better for it — going against the No. 1 Irish defense in practice to sharpen his skills and keep his competitive edge honed.

On top of that, he was determined to study film longer and harder during the upcoming redshirt season. And get faster, stronger. And learn from Kizer’s and Zaire’s mistakes as well as their triumphs. Which he did, by all accounts.

And yet there was no guarantee there’d be an opportunity waiting to meet him at the end of that redshirt journey.

In May of 2016, Kizer had not yet ascended into a pro prospect worthy of leaving with two years of college eligibility on the table. And Zaire had yet to become disenchanted enough to decide to parachute out to Florida as a grad transfer, even after Kizer made his decision to leave.

“I just felt I had to focus on me getting better, and that the playing time would take care of itself,” Wimbush said of the 2016 talent logjam. “It didn’t matter that the depth chart was packed. It was even more so when I signed. Everett Golson was here, too, and it didn’t bother me then.”

“Patience,” Wimbush’s mother, Heather said, “has been a part of who Brandon is for a long time.

“You ever have kids in a car, and they’re constantly asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ They’re restless. But Brandon would just sit in that back seat and stare out the window, and I would look to make sure nothing was wrong.

“It was just like he was just staring out the window, looking at the world. He just always had a quietness, but an intensity.”

That intensity in 2016, Mendoza is convinced, coaxed the constructing of a foundation that will serve the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Wimbush in 2017 when he debuts as Notre Dame’s starting QB Sept. 2, against Temple — and beyond.

“The one thing he could control when he wasn’t playing was how hard he worked,” Mendoza said. “He has an incredible amount of talent, but he works as if he doesn’t. He works as if he’s one of the guys that has to. That’s how greatness happens.

“So here we are in a restaurant when most kids are on break, relaxing — and he’s working. Working in a way a lot of quarterbacks would never think to do. He’s asking about people who accomplished things and how they went about accomplishing them.

“You can go pretty far by asking those kinds of questions and wanting to know the answers.”

■■■

It looks like a whim, but it’s a reminder of what might have been, in a way.

Taking cuts in a batting cage with former football teammate Torii Hunter Jr. at a public facility near campus before Hunter embarked on his professional baseball career in the Los Angeles Angels’ farm system this past winter.

Wimbush will still occasionally venture over to the fitness facility owned by former Notre Dame quarterback/infielder Evan Sharpley for the same reason, to revisit the sport he gave up in 11th grade when football recruiting mushroomed. Sharpley, incidentally, was a late-round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners after leaving ND and briefly played in the minors for that team.

“Everyone who knew Brandon growing up thought he would be a Division I baseball player in college and probably go well beyond that,” said James Brown, Wimbush’s godfather and a member of the extended baseball family in Teaneck, N.J., that helped shape the once-aspiring third baseman’s big-picture perspective.

At an age when some kids are in remedial T-ball, 6 years old, Wimbush was already playing in competitive travel baseball leagues. His prodigy tendencies, as they burgeoned, touched every aspect of the game.

He was not only a fast base-runner, but he had precision in the way he ran them. He could pitch. He could hit for power and average. He was a defensive phenom. And he played year-round.

“The interesting thing about his athleticism, it wasn’t alone in what made him special,” Brown said. “When Brandon was 7, one of the coaches made a video on the kids, where he interviewed each of them about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

“Every one of them wanted to be some kind of athlete, mostly baseball players. That is, except for the one who had the best shot at becoming a professional athlete, Brandon. He said he wanted to be a school teacher.

“A lot of times kids are just bigger and stronger at a certain age, and other kids wind up catching up at some point. But I thought even if they did — and they never really did — who Brandon was on the inside would keep him in that special category.”

Actually, people like Brown played a part in that.

When Wimbush was in the third grade, his parents, Heather and Shawn, divorced. Shawn moved to Pennsylvania, where he’s currently a stock broker and has since re-engaged in Brandon’s life. Heather remained in Teaneck with two young children, Brandon and older brother Sean, and suddenly a logistical nightmare.

A labor-and-delivery nurse, Heather often worked long shifts and most times at odd hours. Nights, weekends, overnights. Still does, but now in Georgia.

“She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever met,” Brandon says.

And, as Wimbush would later discover, an extremely blessed one as well.

Heather’s aunt, Lillieth Bowie, moved in with the family to help get kids off to school in the mornings when it was impossible for Heather to do so. And the baseball family, in which Brown and son Jordan were prominent, covered the rest of the bases.

They got him to games and practices, let him stay overnight, took him to the travel tournaments, and immersed him in strong values and habits along the way.

“I had a strong support system, and I realize that,” Wimbush said, rattling off a lengthy list of names. “And I’m grateful for it.”

Football, meanwhile, was only a blip on the radar for Wimbush, and a momentary one at that. He briefly tried it in third grade but pushed the sport away.

“I was like, ‘Dude, I’m getting beat up. I’m tired.’ ” he said. “And so I quit and went back to baseball.”

In middle school, the grind of year-round baseball prompted him to give football another chance, mostly as a pre-emptive ploy to avoid baseball burnout.

It was love at second sight, and football loved him back. But he was more rough than diamond at first, so Heather put her own business mind to work.

The Jamaica native, who moved at age 7 to New York City with her family, knew all about competing as an elite athlete, but the landscape in helping make it happen for her son was confusing.

Heather was good enough as a sprinter in track to attract college scholarship offers, and she probably could have done so in softball as well. But her immigrant parents couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept of playing sports while attending college, convinced it was an unnecessary distraction. And so she left those aspirations behind when she headed off to Penn State.

“Now, when I think about it, I think that would have been really nice had I had the opportunity to compete,” she said. “But the thing is both of my sons are really good athletes, so in some ways I feel like it really came full circle.”

Heather’s research made sure football didn’t spiral into a dead end for Brandon.

She found private quarterback coach Madei Williams, who played a couple of seasons behind eventual All-Pro Donovan McNabb in the late 1990s, when the two were at Syracuse University.

“Brandon reminds me of a young McNabb,” Williams would say once he was able to revamp Wimbush’s footwork and correct the elongated throwing motion Wimbush brought with him from baseball.

“It was a little Tebow-ish,” Wimbush said with a chuckle.

“But you could tell right away there was something there,” Williams said. “His No. 1 asset is dealing 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.”

The lingering question was where to develop that talent.

Heather was determined to bypass public school Teaneck High, her alma mater, and send Brandon to one of the elite private high schools in the area that combined great academics with great football. Even if it meant financial hardship.

Don Bosco Prep, Paramus Catholic, Bergen Catholic, St. Peter’s Prep.

Of the four, she ended up choosing for Brandon the one with seemingly the least certain football success and definitely the most unforgiving commute.

By car, St. Peter’s Prep was 40 minutes away, in Jersey City. It was even longer the way Wimbush had to get there during his freshman and sophomore years there: Two trains and sometimes a bus, each way.

And unlike Paramus, there were no girls at St. Peter’s Prep.

Wimbush’s childhood friends, many of whom he played baseball with for years, felt jilted. Wimbush himself took almost his entire freshman year to warm up to the change.

His football development, though, wasn’t hindered by it, though it didn’t lead to a quick opportunity, either. At the end of Wimbush’s sophomore year, he still wasn’t a starter. And parents outside Wimbush’s sphere of influence suggested he transfer. Those inside of it knew better.

“I didn’t listen, not even a little bit,” he said. “I was already fully invested. You give two years to something, and it’s like you can’t leave the guys, and you’re committed to what you’re doing at that point.

“I knew what I had at that school for the next two years, that it was something special, and it turned out to be that.

“And when that same talk came up here at Notre Dame last year with people, again there was never a thought about transferring on my part. I came to Notre Dame to be challenged.

“And I stayed for the challenge I was enduring and the people that I’ve met. For the community that it’s in, and for my love of the university. For football and what tradition holds.

“It’s too special, man.”

■■■

So how do we know when absurdly prolific high school stats translate to college football success and when they won’t?

The highest-rated and seemingly surest thing as a quarterback Kelly ever recruited, Gunner Kiel, left Notre Dame after, ironically, a redshirt year in 2012. Kiel initially soared at landing spot Cincinnati, then battled injuries, faded, got demoted and at last glance was still trying to cobble together some kind of pro football future.

Maybe part of the magic is in the preparation, being ready for the moment.

“The mistake so many athletes make, as they make the jump to college, is they don’t realize when they arrive, all those athletic advantages they have before go away,” Mendoza said. “Everybody’s big, strong, fast — like you. So you build a foundation to attack the change. I believe Brandon has done that.”

Making a redshirt year transformative may be the most critical piece, but it’s a foundation that’s been a lifetime in the making.

You can see it through windows in Heather’s memory, like the time Brandon cried in fifth grade about the only B on a report card otherwise teeming with A’s. And set out to change that.

Or the only time Heather ever got called to a principal’s office, a couple of years later, when Brandon simply wrote a note to a girl that he thought she was cute.

“The mother made such a big deal about it,” Heather recalled. “I told the mom, ‘I wish you knew who my son was going to be one day. You would not be making this fuss.’

“This football thing is nice, but I’m just so proud of the person he is on the inside and how he treats people. Even as I say it, it brings tears to my eyes, because I’ve seen this in him since he was a little kid, that he was always that kid who was always trying to help a situation, whatever it was, be better.”

And now it’s his turn to help make Notre Dame football better.

Brian Kelly heard all about the Mendoza-Wimbush get-together from both sides, and wasn’t surprised in the least that his quarterback went to that end in an effort to try to improve himself.

“Nor does it surprise me,” Kelly said back in mid-June, “that he’d walk into my office today and say, ‘How do I approach somebody that is not at a non-mandatory workout? What do I say to him if it’s not mandatory, and I want him to be at the workout today?’

“So that’s the kind of kid you’re dealing with — somebody that is inquisitive, wants to grow personally, professionally. Wants to grow on the football field and off the field. That’s the kind of remarkable kid he is. That’s the kind of kid we’ve got going.”

And to think he very easily could have been happening at someplace other than Notre Dame.

• Had Blake Barnett, a dual-threat quarterback prospect from California in Wimbush’s national recruiting pool, not gotten cold feet about his uber-early ND commitment and bailed for Alabama. Barnett, incidentally, has since turned on the Tide and transferred to Arizona State.

• Had Wimbush stuck with his original verbal commitment to mom’s alma mater, Penn State, which he made in May of his junior year at St. Peter’s Prep. He selected the Nittany Lions over a final five that also included Ohio State, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami.

• Had then-ND quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur not turned on the TV set the night of Sept. 11, 2014 and caught St. Peter’s Prep on a national telecast destroying fellow New Jersey football power Bergen Catholic.

In that game, Wimbush was 19-of-24 for 344 yards and five TDs, and ran for a sixth score, in the 49-20 rout. Afterwards, LaFleur frantically called St. Peter’s coach Rich Hansen to see if Notre Dame could get involved.

It was hardly a statistical outlier in a season in which Wimbush led his team to a state title, over Paramus Catholic, and completed 72 percent of his passes for 3,178 yards with a TD-to-interception ratio of 37-to-5. And for a guy that fancied himself as a pure pocket passer, Wimbush averaged 11.2 yards a carry with nine rushing touchdowns.

The Irish coaches were lukewarm after watching Wimbush’s junior-year film. But within a month of LaFleur doubling back, Wimbush visited ND and flipped his commitment to the Irish.

In the interim of Barnett dropping out of the class and Wimbush joining it, the Irish coaches had all but given up on adding a QB in the 2015 cycle, after failing to gain traction with Deondre Francois (who ended up at Florida State), Travis Waller (Oregon) and Jarrett Stidham (who signed with Baylor but has transferred to Auburn).

Heather knew Brandon’s Penn State commitment was shaky when he decided to take a visit to a Stanford camp in the summer before his senior season, and where he proceeded to break Andrew Luck’s camp record with a heave of 73 yards in a standing passing drill.

Stanford responded by offering Wimbush a scholarship. Alabama, where Barnett was committed, followed suit.

“You’re not going all over the place if you’re firm in your commitment,” said Heather, who admitted both she and Brandon got overwhelmed by the enormity and relentlessness of a recruiting process they never saw coming until it was on top of them.

“I think in retrospect, his decision to choose Penn State was just a way to get it over with,” she said.

The final step before Wimbush gave his pledge to Kelly was a phone call to Blake Barnett to find out why he walked away.

“Again, that was a business decision,” he said. “You kind of look at the benefits and the things that could go wrong. There were a lot of great quarterbacks already there. But I was able to see that there was a ‘next man in’ mentality at this university. And kids did get their opportunity to play — whether it was three years in or their freshman year due to an injury.

“I knew what I was getting academically, and I couldn’t pass that deal up.”

And now the deal gets real and the lights get bright, and the only conventional tangibles Wimbush has on his college résumé are five passing attempts and seven runs spread over two cameos two years ago.

Are we there yet?

The college football world is about to find out.

“As we wound up our conversation, Brandon said, ‘NetApp is such a good place to work. What do you attribute that to?’ ” Mendoza related.

“And I said, ‘We didn’t set out to do anything specific except to do something we’d be proud of for the rest of our lives. We want to surround ourselves with people who felt the same way. So, Brandon, every day, try for something new that you’d be proud of.’

“You could tell this resonated with him. This is what he’s about.” ■

wimbushmag pic