Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush out to prove he's a true dual threat

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Don’t mistake the perception of Brandon Wimbush for the player he wants to be.

The perception is black and white, incapable of context. The perception is reactionary and hot-take-heavy, spreading like a virus through the bowels of social media.

The perception is premature. But, in fandom, patience is not a virtue.

Simply put: the perception is that Wimbush, Notre Dame’s first-year starting quarterback, is limited — a dazzling runner and an inconsistent passer.

To some, the verdict is in … five starts in.

“I know what I have in myself, and the guys know what they have here in me,” Wimbush said on Wednesday. “Once the passing game gets going then obviously that perception will change.

“That’s completely on myself. I have to start making plays and start making the necessary throws.”

The passing game has yet to “get going,” and Wimbush knows it. He owns it. In five starts this season, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior has completed just 52 percent of his passes, throwing for 782 yards and six touchdowns with a pair of interceptions. His passing efficiency rating (114.0) ranks 97th nationwide. In three of those five starts, he completed less than half of his passes.

But he can run. And score. There’s no denying that. The Teaneck, N.J., native already has 402 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns, the latter of which leads a team stacked with capable running backs. With six games remaining, Wimbush is two touchdowns shy of the school’s single-season quarterback rushing touchdown record.

Notre Dame has been virtually unstoppable in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 80.8 percent of its drives, which ranks seventh nationwide.

Its spinning, swiveling, touchdown-scoring quarterback is a primary reason why.

“It doesn’t surprise me, just because of the type of athlete that he is," said Madei Williams, who has served as Wimbush's private quarterbacks coach since eighth grade. "If you just look at his body type and his physical skill set, he’s built like a big running back. That is a part of his game that can be the asset to his offense.

"The kid can run. He’s probably just as fast as any of his receivers or any of his running backs. He’s going to run away from people. The level of athleticism is there."

But what about the accuracy? What about the consistency? What about the other end of the term "dual threat"?

Wimbush has been dazzling and debilitating, often in the same drive.

So, who is Brandon Wimbush: perception or potential?

“Brandon is the last person I would think of, being somebody I’ve worked with for a lengthy period of time, being looked at as someone who is not efficient as a passer,” said Williams, who played behind Donovan McNabb at Syracuse. “That has really never been his track record. Both of us are really trying to wrap our heads around this.”

The track record, of course, is indisputable. In his senior season at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City, N.J., in 2014, Wimbush completed 72 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,178 yards with 37 touchdowns and five interceptions. He rushed for 11.2 yards per carry and nine more scores, earning New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year honors while leading the Marauders to a state title.

He was a winner.

He was also a pocket passer.

“In terms of his mental makeup and how he envisions himself as a quarterback,” Williams said, “it’s definitely pass-first and run-second.”

That’s what Wimbush sees, but it’s not what the world sees. It’s not what the statistics reflect.

Yet.

“I want him to show who the real Brandon Wimbush is — the full dynamic of his entire skill set, not just as a runner, which is being highlighted right now,” Williams said. “That’s a tremendous part of his game, but him being an efficient pocket passer and dissecting the defense from the pocket … that’s something that he can do.

“He just needs to continue to trust his eyes, trust his decision making and everything will fall into place.”

Provided that he stays healthy. Wimbush’s progress was stunted during a 52-17 victory over Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 30, when the first-year starter suffered a right foot strain late in the second quarter. He finished the game, completing 7 of 18 passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns while running for 36 yards and another score.

But his resilience took its toll. Wimbush watched Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 7 from the sideline, clearing the way for sophomore Ian Book’s first career start and win.

“It was a little bit frustrating, because I wasn’t able to be out there and help the guys win a game and keep that camaraderie going that we had built,” Wimbush said. “It was important for me to get back out there last week and show the guys why I’m the (starting) quarterback.”

It was the first football game Wimbush has missed, on any level.

And, frustrations aside, it might be exactly what he needed.

“I think it was almost a blessing in disguise for him to sit out this last game, because it brings everything back into perspective, for him to really, fully appreciate what it is that he does on a week-in, week-out basis,” Williams said. “The fact that he wasn’t out there with his guys, rallying the troops, I think it was unsettling.

“I think he’s chomping at the bit to get out there and continue to prove his worth and show to his coaches and everybody that’s fans of Notre Dame football that he is who he says he is, that he is who Brian Kelly thinks he can be.”

And who is that, exactly?

“Production-wise, obviously it hasn’t been Aaron Rodgers-esque,” Wimbush said. “But I’m similar in the fact that I’m able to throw the ball really well and use my feet when a play breaks down to the best of my ability.”

OK, but can he diagnose defenses? Can he change the play at the line of scrimmage? Can he anticipate throws? Can he transcend that pesky perception?

“I think the game has slowed down immensely for myself and for the rest of the offense,” said Wimbush, who reports his achy foot is fully healed. “I think we’re at a point where we’re going to start clicking on a new level. I’m excited to see what that looks like this weekend.

“Recognizing the defense is something I had to improve on, and I think I did.”

Of course, Wimbush will get at least six more opportunities to prove it, starting on Saturday night when No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) hosts No. 11 USC (6-1). The Trojan defense ranks 36th nationally in passing efficiency defense and fifth in interceptions (10).

But Wimbush is confident in his ability to handle it. He’s confident in his preparation.

And he knows that once his production changes, the perception will eventually follow.

“Just having three weeks to watch more film, to work on technique, to work on the timing with the receivers and get back into a groove, I think it’s been huge and will pay huge dividends this upcoming weekend,” Wimbush said.

“We’re excited for USC to come into town. I’m excited to get back out there and put on a show.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) throws the ball during the Notre Dame at Boston College NCAA College football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA