Can Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush outgrow his growing pains?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There are rough patches, at least statistically, in almost all of their pasts.

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, on pace to break the NCAA record for single-season pass-efficiency, for instance, fashioned a rating in the same realm (127.7) in his first college season as Notre Dame first-year starter Brandon Wimbush has produced through his first nine starts (118.8).

The man chasing Mayfield, UCF’s McKenzie Milton, has improved by more than 70 ratings points (113.0 to 184.6) from 2016, and from a No. 103 standing last season to No. 2 this season.

Missouri’s Drew Lock, No. 4 this week (160.9), was at 90.5 two seasons ago — No. 113 of 114 FBS QBs with enough pass attempts to qualify for the rankings. Even a more seasoned QB, Wake Forest’s John Wolford, has shown you can make quantum improvement between one’s junior and senior seasons.

He’s ninth nationally this week (162.8) after shredding Syracuse last weekend and vexing the Irish the week before. The fourth-year starter was the No. 107 passer last season (108.6).

There are outliers in the pass-efficiency top 10, like Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, but even he went through a couple of seasons of significant regression, before a bounce-back senior season in 2017.

All of which don’t make Wimbush’s inconsistencies in the passing game for AP No. 9 Notre Dame (8-2) any less perplexing.

“I was extremely excited when we first got him and when I first saw the highlight film of him coming out of high school and everything,” said former Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein, a college football and NFL analyst for CBS Sports.

“I just loved the way he threw the football. He just seemed to play really confident. Just saw a lot of good things the way the ball came out of his hand. The accuracy. He looked real comfortable in the pocket. I haven’t seen any of that kind of stuff this year, at least not on a consistent basis.

“He’s obviously an incredible athlete. I had no idea he was as good of a runner as he is. But as far as throwing, I’ve seen some good ones, just not with the consistency I was expecting.”

The dilemma as a coach is how do you differentiate the developing player who’s going to outgrow his growing pains and worth the investment from the one who will get swallowed up by that process and flat-line?

“It’s not easy,” Beuerlein said, pointing to L.A. Rams second-year quarterback Jared Goff.

“Last year, he was out there his rookie year and he looked like he had absolutely no clue what he wanted to do, that he didn’t trust himself, that he was just completely overwhelmed,” he said. “And I, along with a lot of other people who do this for a living, said, ‘I don’t know if this guy is ever going to be able to get this done.’

“Now you look at him and you’re going, ‘This guy looks like a whole different person. He looks like one of the best in the league right now. So it can happen.’ ”

Perhaps suppressing Wimbush’s numbers, but providing him a quicker path for learning, has been the level of competition he has faced.

Among the College Football Playoff rankings’ top 10 teams, only Notre Dame has faced more than one top 10 pass-efficiency defense (2) this season, and the Irish have faced two more pass defenses ranked in the top 35 (6) than the next closest teams (Clemson, Auburn and Ohio State all with 4). Oklahoma has faced zero.

As far as bad pass defenses — ranked 85th or below (or an FCS team) — Auburn has seen six such teams. Wisconsin and Notre Dame are at the other end of the spectrum with one apiece. But Wimbush missed that game (North Carolina) with a foot injury, so he’s actually faced none.

That changes Saturday, with Navy (6-3) and the nation’s No. 121 pass-efficiency defense coming to town for Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EST; NBC-TV).

“When I’m evaluating a struggling or growing quarterback and whether he’s worth staying with, the first thing I look for is the ability to make plays,” Beuerlein said. “And Brandon Wimbush shows that, both with his feet and his arm.

“He’s made some really good throws at times, and he’s made some amazing plays running the football. I do think his natural ability is really good. Everything changes when you have to do it under pressure. I’ve seen enough that I’m encouraged that his inconsistencies can be fixed.”

Going about fixing it, Beuerlein said, is a shared responsibility between Wimbush and the Irish coaching staff.

“The coaches have to learn what he does best and how to teach it to him,” he said, “and getting him to understand what he’s expected to do.

“I do think he can be developed, but the first step has to come from him. He’s got to start looking at himself as a guy that can do it, not showing that lack of confidence and that indecision that he shows sometimes out there.

“He’s got to say, ‘I’ve got this. I belong here, and I’m going to show you right now.’ If he can get into that frame of mind, and get the coaching to go with it, that’s a combination I think is tough to beat.”

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) looks to throw during ND's 49-14 rout of USC, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)