Notebook: Notre Dame's Kelly confident in QB Ian Book if Brandon Wimbush doesn't recover
SOUTH BEND — If Brandon Wimbush’s achy right foot turns out to be more than just a painful distraction, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has quick-learning sophomore Ian Book and history on his side.
As of Tuesday, Kelly had not ruled out Wimbush, ND’s first-year starting quarterback, from playing for the 21st-ranked Irish (4-1) against North Carolina (1-4), Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Wednesday will be a critical day in evaluating whether the soft-tissue injury, that Kelly said 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior suffered during last Saturday’s 52-17 squashing of Miami (Ohio), would coax Wimbush into a spectator role against the nation’s No. 112 team (out of 129) in total defense.
If it does, Book has roughly the same game-experience résumé that Wimbush had when he made his first career start Sept. 2 against Temple: Eight pass attempts and four rushes for Book, compared to five passes and seven rushes for Wimbush.
“We're a 60/40 rep split operation,” Kelly said Tuesday of Book’s practice exposure to date, “so he's been getting a lot of work through camp, through the season. He's got a lot of meaningful reps.
“This is not an NFL operation, where the starting quarterback gets all the work. It's a 60/40 split of reps. So we'll see where Brandon is, whether that changes or not. We'll get a look at it (Tuesday). But if we've got to increase his reps, that would be the first thing that we would do.”
In the 14 seasons that Kelly has been coaching at the FBS level, Saturday could be the ninth time he has had to turn to a backup to start a game or series of games because of an injury to the starting quarterback.
In six of those previous eight instances, the emergency starter was a QB making his first collegiate start.
Kelly’s teams are 5-1 in such games, 7-1 when you add in a 2012 start by a seasoned Tommy Rees for the Irish against BYU, and veteran Dustin Grutza presiding over a 47-10 victory over Miami (Ohio) for Kelly’s 2007 Cincinnati team.
The only loss came the first time Kelly was confronted by the situation. Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour was on the losing end of a 41-17 setback at Michigan back in 2006.
The two first-time starters who were thrust into emergency starting assignments during Kelly’s time at Notre Dame were Rees vs. a 15th-ranked Utah team in 2010 and DeShone Kizer vs. 14th-ranked Georgia Tech in 2015.
In both games, a 28-3 win over the Utes and a 30-22 conquest of Georgia Tech, the offense was more balanced than strictly run-reliant.
Rees, currently the Irish QBs coach, completed 13 of 20 passes for 129 yards and three TDs without an interception for a 168.7 pass-efficiency rating, well above his career mark (133.5). The Irish ran 29 times for 145 yards on that game, including Rees' two rushes for minus-7 yards.
Kizer was 21-of-30 for 242 yards against the Yellow Jackets with one TD and one interception (141.8 passer rating). Kizer ran the ball for six yards on five carries, and ND had 32 rushes for 215 yards as a team.
Whether it’s Book or Wimbush Saturday — or a combination of both, the Irish will likely test the Tar Heels in the run game. ND comes in as the nation’s No. 7 rushing team (301.4), while the Tar Heels are 112th in rushing defense (221.4), the fourth straight season they’ve been in the 100s in that statistical category.
North Carolina has injury concerns of its own, and lots of them. A total of 13 players have been lost for the season. Eight starters missed UNC’s 33-7 loss at Georgia Tech on Saturday. Still, that’s the only game this season that North Carolina didn’t lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Irish do have an open week after the North Carolina game to heal up and rest before facing 14th-ranked USC at home on Oct. 21.
“He wants to play,” Kelly said of Wimbush. “He's a competitor. We've seen how competitive the young man is. We'll examine all of those possibilities.”
Wimbush has completed 69 of his 113 pass attempts for 782 yards and six TDs with two interceptions. He is ND's second-leading rusher with 402 yards on 68 carries and eight touchdowns.
The possibility of Book playing doesn’t seem daunting to Kelly. The 6-0, 208-pound sophomore had to learn a new offense — coordinator Chip Long’s version — this offseason, as did Wimbush.
The same thing happened to Book his senior season at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, Calif. In fact, the change then was even more dramatic.
Book played his first two seasons as a starter in a pro-style offense, in which there were almost zero planned QB runs. But when Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere decided to shift to a spread offense in Book’s senior season, his QB thrived in it.
Book completed 71 percent of his passes in 2015 in the new offense, with 3,049 passing yards and a 30-5 TD-to-interception ratio. He averaged 6.0 yards a carry (779 yards, 129 carries, 12 TDs).
“Physically, for Ian, the two best things he does, is his accuracy, No. 1,” Cavaliere told the Tribune earlier this year. “His accuracy is just phenomenal. It’s not just about hitting open receivers, it’s about hitting receivers in the right spot where they can make a play after a catch.
“The second thing is he’s really good at extending a play. He’s really good at feeling pressure. He keeps his eyes down field, and he’s always been able to find that second or third receiver when a play breaks down.”
The league Oak Ridge plays in, the Sierra Foothill League, is renowned not only for its prowess in the state playoffs but also for producing college standouts. Book redshirted as a freshman for ND last season.
Wimbush, also redshirted last season, as a sophomore, with Kizer starting and former starter Malik Zaire scoring a few cameos. Zaire in the summer took a grad-style transfer to Florida, where he has been a backup.
Behind book is senior Montgomery VanGorder, who took a handful of QB snaps against Miami (Ohio) last Saturday, and redshirting freshman Avery Davis.
Wimbush, meanwhile, has been in a walking boot since coming in for the Irish players’ mandatory Sunday health checkup.
Both X-rays and an MRI came back clean, per Kelly, indicating to him and the training staff there was no structural damage.
“We're not going to push him really hard (Tuesday),” Kelly said. “I think we'll get him probably moving a little bit, throwing. My vision would be more toward getting him out there Wednesday for practice.”
Kelly did address rumors that the injury occurred outside of football.
“Is it possible? Well, I'd talk to anybody that has speculative information out there, and I trust what Brandon tells me,” Kelly said. “I have no reason not to trust 100 percent what Brandon tells me.
“He went out and felt his foot was not right, and he went home. That's what he told me. I believe him. I have no reason not to believe him based upon my relationship with him over the last three years.”
Kelly said both of Notre Dame’s players from the Las Vegas area were deeply affected by the tragedy in their hometown late Sunday.
At least 59 are dead and hundreds more injured in Las Vegas in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. The shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, killed himself as SWAT officers closed in on him.
“They both obviously have had some friends that have been touched by it in some fashion,” Kelly said of safety Nicco Fertitta and tight end Alizé Mack, former teammates at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School.
“I can't give you the specifics or particulars, but both of them were obviously — and we all are obviously — devastated by the news and sick about it.
“But both of them, Nicco and Alizé, were quite sullen (Monday), because they knew of somebody that they were close to or were acquaintances that were affected by the tragedy.”
Bracing for a comeback
With the plethora of ankle injuries among the Notre Dame running backs this season, the brainstorm coming to life of ND associate athletic trainer Mike Bean has certainly made a difference.
Bean concocted the TayCo External Ankle Brace, which several other college teams and NFL squads have also used this season.
“I couldn't give you the exact numbers, but it is a very popular choice for our players for stability,” Kelly said. “What it does more than anything else is it gets you back on the field moving. It's been really amazing what that brace has been allowing our players to do quickly.
“(Tony Jones Jr.) had a high-ankle sprain and came back (after a week off). He was not 100 percent last week, but I've seen high-ankle sprains that are four weeks (out of action), and he practiced pretty hard last week with that brace on. And that's the first time I've seen something like that before.”