Notebook: Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush puts his best foot forward for USC clash

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — So maybe patience isn’t Brandon Wimbush’s virtue.

During his recent stab at being a bystander, the Notre Dame junior quarterback managed to misplace his helmet, contributed mostly gibberish to replacement QB Ian Book and was too distracted by not playing to soak in much of anything meaningful from the sideline in ND’s 33-10 romp over North Carolina on Oct. 7.

The reason Irish coach Brian Kelly was smiling Tuesday is because Wimbush won’t have an opportunity to perfect that inconsequential craft.

The grade-one strain to his right foot that coaxed Wimbush into a temporary backup role is 100 percent healed, per Kelly. And the coach did see significant gains from him in the skill sets that mattered during practice last week — a bye week — for the 13th-ranked Irish (5-1).

All of which means he’ll be making career start No. 6 Saturday night against the highest-ranked team to visit Notre Dame Stadium during the eight-year Brian Kelly Era, No. 11 USC (6-1). Kickoff is 7:30 EDT (NBC-TV).

“In these bye weeks, we evaluate and self-scout,” Kelly said, “and he's been really productive in a number of areas for us: Moving the chains, fourth-down conversions, third down, big plays.

“Yeah, there has to be some improvement in some other areas. But from a productivity standpoint, he's done some really good things and he's only going to get better.”

On Saturday night, he’ll be the great unknown of sorts in a matchup that’s girding the epicenter of the college football universe, if not directly at it. And quite possibly the good kind of unknown, as far as the Irish are concerned.

USC is 60th nationally in run defense (out of 129 teams in the FBS), and has yet to be challenged this season by a dual-threat quarterback with the running prowess of Wimbush.

Of the seven starting QBs that the Trojans have faced in 2017, only Texas freshman Sam Ehlinger (271 yards, 4.0 per carry) is averaging more than the 2.7 yards a carry and has collected more than the 104 total rushing yards on the season that Western Michigan’s Jon Wassink produced in the Trojans’ season opener.

Ehlinger ran for 10 yards on 19 carries, including five sacks, in a 27-24 double-overtime loss to USC on Sept 16.

Wimbush in five starts, for the nation’s No. 5 rushing team, has amassed 402 yards on 68 carries (5.9 average) with eight rushing TDs, two off the single-season ND record. Only five QBs in the FBS have scored more TDs this season.

The passing game has been the bigger challenge. Wimbush’s 114.0 pass-efficiency rating is 96th (69-of-132, 782 yards, 6 TDs), though he’s faced three of the nation’s top defenses against the pass in his five starts. USC is 36th in pass-efficiency defense, with 10 interceptions contributing to that ranking.

A plus for Wimbush has been his interceptions — just two so far. That’s seven fewer than his USC counterpart, redshirt sophomore and presumptive future first-round draft choice Sam Darnold (43rd in passing efficiency). USC’s 28-27 escape over Utah Saturday night was his first game this season without a pick, but he had three lost fumbles in that game.

A possible boost to the Irish passing game could be sophomore Kevin Stepherson, who sat out the first four games of the season for disciplinary reasons and had one catch total for minus-three yards in the two games that followed.

But Stepherson was ND’s third-leading receiver last season and may be the best deep threat on the Irish roster.

“I think you probably saw what we saw — somebody that needed to get re-introduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said, “even in a sense it was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

“He's had a really good off-week. And this week, you'll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of this season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Personnel matters

Senior linebacker Greer Martini suffered a knee injury in practice recently and is questionable (“day to day” were Kelly’s words) for Saturday night’s USC game.

Martini is third on the team in tackles, with 39, and has an interception and two forced fumbles.

• All three of ND’s top running backs — juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones — are “good to go” as far as their ankle injuries that have caused them to either miss games or limited their carries in games.

Adams, with 17 carries for 180 yards in last season’s 45-27 loss at USC, had the most rushing yards by an opposing player against the Trojan defense in 2016.

He is No. 7 nationally in rushing yards per game (129.3) this season and second nationally in yards per carry (9.02).

• Key backup Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, a freshman defensive tackle who the Irish pulled away from USC late in the recruiting process, is fully recovered from a chest contusion suffered in the North Carolina win on Oct. 7.

• Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor’s season is over before it ever started.

Kelly said Tuesday that Taylor won’t play in 2017 as he struggles to come back from surgery on his left foot, performed last March.

Taylor suffered a Lisfranc fracture in the foot on March 10, the second spring practice date, and was originally expected to be cleared by July.

He has played in four games in his Irish career, all in 2016. All three of his career tackles came in the loss at USC last November in the regular-season finale.

Midseason All-Americans

Senior offensive guard Quenton Nelson and grad senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey made the first-ever Associated Press Midseason All-America Team, unveiled Tuesday.

Nelson was a first-teamer, while McGlinchey took second-team honors.

Several ND opposing players made the two-team list, including USC sophomore defensive end Christian Rector on the second team.

Stanford running back Bryce Love, N.C. State tight end Jaylen Samuels, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith were all first-teamers.

N.C. State’s all-purpose player Nyheim Hines and Stanford safety Justin Reid joined Rector on the second team.

Keeping up with the Joneses

There will be eight players with the surname Jones in Saturday’s game, with a ninth, Irish tight end Alizé Mack, having legally changed his name from Jones in the past year.

USC has the edge there, with five Joneses (CBs Jack and Jalen, LB Levi, TB Ronald II and WR Velus Jr.). Repping ND are LBs Jonathan and Jamir, and RB Tony Jr.

Special teams checkup

The most impressive improvement on Notre Dame’s special teams has been the jump from 106th nationally to 31st in net punting, a big plus when it comes to field position. The Irish have made significant gains in a related stat, punt coverage (123rd to 70th).

The gaffes in special teams that cost the Irish games last season haven’t been present during the first six games under new special teams coordinator Brian Polian, in his second tour of duty at ND.

But the Irish haven’t been special in kickoff returns (falling from 28th to 55th), kickoff coverage (95th to 106th) or punt returns (44th to 112th).

“I think the only area that we need to continue to grow and get better is our coverage teams relative to kickoff coverage,” Kelly said.

“Obviously if you're kicking the ball in the back of the end zone and you're not getting returns, that's the ultimate coverage. But when the ball comes out of the end zone, we've struggled. We've got to kick the ball better and our coverage has got to be better.”

Junior Justin Yoon has reclaimed the kickoff job from freshman Jonathan Doerer for the foreseeable future, though Kelly ultimately prefers Yoon to be able to focus solely on his place-kicking duties.

Thirteen of Yoon’s 36 kickoffs have been touchbacks, and he’s averaging 62.6 yards a kick. Doerer has two touchbacks on his eight kickoffs and is averaging 58.1 yards.

Notre Dame’s QB Brandon Wimbush (7) runs the ball during ND's 49-20 win over Boston College, Saturday at Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)