No passing the buck when it comes to protecting ND's Wimbush against Georgia

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Among the deluge of what started out to be congratulatory text messages that greeted Brandon Wimbush Saturday night was a terse, gently admonishing one.

Self-preservation.

Many others with a similar bottom line would follow.

“Probably about 100 of them,” the Notre Dame junior quarterback said of the cell phone explosion that followed his first collegiate start.

Madei Williams, a longtime personal quarterback tutor and father figure for Wimbush, sent his hyphenated exhortation at halftime of Notre Dame’s season-opening, 49-16 mauling of Temple, knowing his protégé wouldn’t see it until after the game.

His hope is that it might actually pop up first.

Wimbush’s body might have given the theme away before he got to his phone. Of the combined 42 plays — 30 passes and 12 runs — that Wimbush didn’t hand the ball off against the Owls, he took hits on 16 of them. Very few of those could be described as love taps.

This Saturday night, he’ll have to navigate against a faster, more massive and more experienced defense, when No. 15 Georgia (1-0) visits Notre Dame Stadium to face the 24th-ranked Irish (1-0). Kickoff for the first ND regular-season game against an SEC opponent in 12 seasons is 7:30 p.m. EST (NBC-TV).

The Irish offensive line, bullying in the run game against Temple (422 yards on 44 carries), was a co-conspirator in the affront on Wimbush, who was sacked twice among the multiple hits.

“We don't leave the evaluation going, ‘We've got some major issues in pass protection.’ ” ND head coach Brian Kelly offered. “The things that we'll take care of more than anything else is the unwarranted hits on the quarterback, things that we can control.

“The physical pieces of offensive linemen, in terms of their growth, we feel really good about that and they're going to continue to get better.”

Why all of this matters is the way the defensive coordinators in this matchup figure to try to funnel the respective offensive game plans — load up on the run game and put the pressure on the two quarterbacks.

For Georgia true freshman Jake Fromm, the assignment against the Irish represents his first college start, although he played extensively in relief of injured sophomore starter Jacob Eason last Saturday in a 31-10 romp over Appalachian State.

It’s Wimbush’s second start, but the learning curve about how to sync up with his pass protection, is likely just as steep as Fromm’s.

Think about it, the red jersey that protects him practice kept him from contact all of training camp, all last spring, all through an entire redshirt year in 2016 and all but a handful of mop-up plays he repped in two freshman cameos in 2015.

Then there’s high school. Until the New Jersey Non-Public Group 4 state title game against blitz-happy Paramus Catholic, Wimbush wasn’t sacked once in 2014.

“Even in the run game, when he ran the ball downfield, he never really did take any big shots,” Williams said of Wimbush’s senior season at St. Peter’s Prep, capped by a 34-18 upending of Paramus Catholic.

But he added Wimbush has always been a quick learner.

“I think his taking the hits and getting his timing with his line, more than anything else, is about him being back out there on the field, “ Williams said, “getting reacclimated to that field savvy and swag that’s been missing the past couple of years.

“Sometimes it just takes a game or two to get that feel back, and for him to have a better grasp and understanding of where to get those tough yards and where just to preserve your body.”

As in sliding or running out of bounds when it makes sense.

“I’m still going to use my athletic ability,” Wimbush qualified. “I’m still going to make plays, but when the opportunity presents itself, I will get down.”

Wimbush’s 17-of-30 passing for 184 yards and two touchdowns and one interception last week against Temple calculates to a 123.5 pass-efficiency rating, the lowest of the six quarterbacks who made their starting debuts during the Kelly Era.

Yet his 106 rushing yards (on 12 carries with 1 TD) is more than all five of the other debuting Kelly QBs had combined in their first starts and the most in a first start by an Irish quarterback in at least 40 years.

Tamping down Wimbush’s passing numbers likely were a conservative game plan for a first-time starter, the desire by Kelly to establish the offense as physical and leaving a large part of the Kelly/Chip Long offense unwrapped for a Georgia secondary that doesn’t have the production or necessarily the health of the Bulldogs’ imposing front seven.

“I think the ND faithful only got a very small glimpse of what Brandon Wimbush is capable of,” Williams said. “There’s a lot more to see, and I think that will grow with each passing week.”

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Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush took 16 hits against Temple last Saturday in his first collegiate start. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)