Notebook: Kelly optimistic Wimbush will play for Notre Dame, but will he start?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most definitive statement Brian Kelly offered Thursday about his evolving quarterback situation for Saturday is that senior Montgomery VanGorder is absolutely the third option.

Not freshman Avery Davis.

Just who will start for 21st-ranked Notre Dame (4-1) against host North Carolina (1-4) Saturday at Kenan Memorial Stadium is awash in ambiguity until the 3:30 p.m. EDT kickoff (ABC-TV).

“He practiced today, did some good things,” Kelly said of junior Brandon Wimbush, who started ND’s first five games this season and could still start game six, despite a grade-one foot strain sustained last Saturday in a 52-17 romp over Miami (Ohio).

If sophomore Ian Book makes his first collegiate start Saturday against the Tar Heels, Wimbush would be his backup — not VanGorder — per the Irish head coach.

“If (Wimbush) doesn’t start, he would be able to do something — absolutely,” Kelly said.

What Wimbush has done cumulatively in games 1 through 5 this season as a first-year starter is complete 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, and is 71 yards away from moving into the top five on ND’s all-time, single-season rushing list for quarterbacks.

Book redshirted last season as a freshman and has logged snaps in four of five games this season, though his only action in the 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9 was a singular play that came about when Wimbush had to fiddle with a contact lens.

For the season, Book has completed 3 of 8 passes for 51 yards and rushed five times for 40 yards.

“He’s very accurate with the football,” Kelly said of his practice impressions of Book this week. “He’s got a good grasp of the offense and he elevates the play of the guys around him.

“He’s been effective moving the ball, so it’s what we thought. He’s had a good week and has been really effective.”

Kelly said Wimbush’s practice week went as follows: Only upper-body work on Tuesday. Stretching, throwing the football to keep his arm loose, but no actual practice reps.

On Wednesday, it was a heavy running day with some light throwing. Thursday he took some actual practice reps at QB.

“He’s in a good place,” Kelly said. “We’ve got two more days. He’ll get some more rehab, but again he’s where we’d hope he would be. And we expect more progress to be made over the next couple of days.”

Notre Dame has a bye week following the North Carolina game before hosting 14th-ranked USC on Oct. 21. Kelly said there was no thought of holding back Wimbush to give him extra healing time for the post-bye week games if he is indeed ready to go.

“This is a game we need to win,” Kelly said, “and it’s all in.”

Holmes promoted

The seventh-leading rushing attack in the nation added another running back to the mix this week. Freshman C.J. Holmes, previously redshirting, was elevated from a scout-team role and will play special teams and possibly join the running back rotation as soon as Saturday.

“We brought him up with us with the intent of we think that he can contribute,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-1, 208-pounder. “He’s a skilled player. He’s got some talents. We hope to play eight more games, so that’s a lot of season left.

“We wouldn’t bring him up with us if we didn’t think he was ready to play physically and that he didn’t have the skills necessary for us to win with him. We’ll see how the game plays out, but he’s with us to contribute this year.”

As for the four running backs who have played this season, three of them are coming off ankle injuries. And Kelly is encouraged all of them may be available for the Tar Heels and the nation’s 112th-ranked rushing defense.

Junior Josh Adams leads the way at 131.6 yards per game, good for seventh in the nation individually. Because of the injuries, sophomore Deon McIntosh has gobbled up the carries and actually has more as a fourth-stringer (28) than two of the players ahead of him — junior Dexter Williams (20) and sophomore Tony Jones Jr. (13).

“Josh had a good day today,” Kelly said. “Tony looked really good today. In terms of him and Dexter, Dexter is going to be able to play, but Tony is probably a little bit ahead of him right now. But we have plenty of guys.”

Notable numbers

North Carolina has been a strong recruiting base for Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly Era. Excluding the current (2018) class, Kelly has signed eight high school prospects from the state in his first eight recruiting cycles.

That’s seventh, behind Florida (25), Ohio (20), California (16), Illinois (15), Indiana (13) and Texas (12).

And Kelly does have a North Carolina prospect verbally committed in the 2018 class — running back Jahmir Smith of Lee County High School in Sanford, N.C.

• Kelly shoots for his third successive true road win Saturday. He is 17-15 in such games while at Notre Dame.

• Saturday will be the 20th-ever meeting in football between Notre Dame and UNC, with the Irish leading 17-2. The first came at Yankee Stadium, as Frank Leahy’s top-ranked Irish won 42-6 on their way to the 1949 national championship.

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) and running back Josh Adams (33), here in action last Saturday against Miami (Ohio), are expected to return from minor injuries sustained in that game and play against North Carolina on Saturday. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)