Analysis: Passing judgment at Notre Dame begins with Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The what-ifs are mildly intriguing, but hardly relevant when it comes to who Brian Kelly must become.

What if DeShone Kizer stays out of the 2017 NFL Draft pool? What if Navy transfer Alohi Gilman gets the immediate-eligibility green light that Irish forward Jessica Shepard did in women’s hoops this fall?

What if Notre Dame and Wisconsin trade 2017 football schedules? What if running back Dexter Williams is healthy and utilized the entire season? What if Brian Kelly hires Mike Elko in January of 2014 instead of December of 2016?

None of those scenarios flipped would remedy the missing piece to the 2017 Notre Dame football regular season.

An evolving passer at the quarterback position.

Whether Notre Dame (9-3), 15th in the latest AP poll and 17th in the coaches version, ends up in the Citrus Bowl against an SEC team (think South Carolina, LSU or Mississippi State) or the Camping World Bowl against a Big 12 foe (think Oklahoma State, Iowa State, West Virginia), there’s really nothing redemptive available in either Orlando bowl game, spaced four days apart.

Which means another offseason of toxic soup for ninth-year Irish head coach Kelly to navigate, to try to quarantine from his recruiting efforts — something he should be able to handle given last year’s version was much more challenging.

Above all, though, Kelly this offseason must become a quarterback whisperer or fixer or developer — whatever you want to call it.

That’s not to say Notre Dame’s exclusion from the New Year’s Six bowl mix is junior Brandon Wimbush’s fault.

His kneel-down inside the N.C. State 5-yard line at the end of a 35-14 rout of the Wolfpack on Oct. 28 and a fourth-down incompletion with the last pass he threw against Stanford in a 38-20 loss Saturday night are the only occasions Notre Dame didn’t score in the red zone this season when he was on the field.

His 765 rushing yards, with one game to go, are only topped in Notre Dame history by Tony Rice’s 884 in the 1989 season among Irish QBs. His 14 rushing TDs are at least four more than any other ND quarterback has amassed in a single season.

And by all accounts, at every turn, Wimbush studied, pushed, asked, listened and battled beyond expected levels when it came to improving his passing prowess, which stands at a pedestrian 87th in the national pass-efficiency ratings, at 122.3 ratings points.

That is almost exactly where he stood after the 49-16 dismissal of Temple in the Sept. 2 season opener (123.5).

Wimbush has faced an inordinate amount of good pass defenses in his first season as a starter — seven in the top 40 nationally, four in the top 16. But Stanford wasn’t one of them (65th coming into the game).

In fact, in almost every significant defensive category, this was the worst Cardinal defense Brian Kelly has had to game-plan against in his eight years at Notre Dame.

And his starting quarterback went 11-for-28 against it.

There are other statistical head-scratchers. Like how Virginia QB Kurt Benkert shredded Miami for a half the week after the Hurricanes smothered Wimbush in a 41-8 waxing of the Irish, or how true freshman Kenny Pickett, in his first collegiate start, took down the previously unbeaten Hurricanes on Friday, going 18-of-29 for 193 yards and two TDs with no interceptions.

Or how Stanford’s K.J. Costello, a redshirt freshman with less starting experience, looked so much more adept and comfortable, not to mention statistically superior, Saturday night at Stanford Stadium and against the tougher defensive assignment, per the numbers.

Even analyst Kirk Herbstreit offered during the ABC telecast Saturday night that he understood Kelly’s steadfast support of Wimbush, noting how in practice the junior makes all the throws.

A crises of confidence?

If that’s the case, there appears to be a pattern.

DeShone Kizer is the only one of Wimbush’s five predecessors under Kelly, to start more than one game for the Irish, who wasn’t eventually demoted long-term.

Everett Golson showed the most improvement statistically among them, and it was modest at that — a 131.0 rating in 2012 as a redshirt freshman to 143.6 in 2014, sandwiched around a year in academic exile. But his turnovers spiked from 10 to 22, including losing eight fumbles in 2014, which don’t show up in the pass-efficiency stats.

Dayne Crist went backwards (129.3 to 111.6), and the slide continued when he reunited with the man who recruited him, Charlie Weis, at Kansas (96.5). Malik Zaire also regressed, in an admittedly small sample size, and continued to do so this season at Florida as the Gators’ third option.

Even Kizer, with admittedly a lesser surrounding cast in 2016, didn’t improve statistically after a brilliant 2015 (150.0 to 145.6). Tommy Rees — currently Wimbush’s 25-year-old position coach — was basically a flat progression as a player: 132.0, 133.4, 124.1, 135.4.

How important is pass-efficiency in the bigger picture? It’s one of the key metrics — along with rush offense, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin — that national champions tend to do very well.

Among the 19 titlists in the BCS/Playoff Era, the lowest any of them ranked in team pass efficiency was the 2007 LSU championship team at No. 37. Fifteen of the 19 ranked in the top 20 in that category, while four led the nation.

There are similar numbers among the national championship game losers — 15 of 19 among the top 25 in pass-efficiency, three No. 1s in that category and one really bad outlier. That team happened to finish 74th and it was the 2012 Notre Dame team that got blown out by Alabama, 42-14.

Elite quarterback play tends to cover up a lot of warts, and Notre Dame should actually have fewer of those in 2018.

Despite some less-than-dominant stretches by the defense in November, there was still significant progress across the board over last season. The most room for improvement there comes at the safety position group, and help is on the way.

But among the six players who have seen action for the Irish at safety this season, they have combined for zero interceptions. The last time that happened at ND in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present) was … never.

Kelly offered Saturday night that Wimbush would be his starting QB in the bowl game, the specifics of which Notre Dame will learn on Selection Sunday next Sunday. For those pushing for sophomore Ian Book, it should be noted his efficiency rating is 102.0, more than 20 points lower than Wimbush’s.

But it’s on Kelly to decide if coaxing his quarterback play to a higher level in 2018 means opening up the job in the spring to Book and redshirting freshman Avery Davis, and in the summer to phenom Phil Jurkovec.

It’s also on Kelly to decide whether to adjust schematically or in play-calling. Whether he needs to re-immerse himself in the QB room.

Above all, he needs to decipher if Wimbush has the vision to play QB at this level, to be able to anticipate open windows in the passing game. Some QBs that struggle with that initially improve dramatically. Some plateau and have to be jumped over.

How ever Kelly goes about evolving the position, he won’t have to wait long in 2018 to assess the temperature of whether it’s all really working out.

Michigan, with a better pass defense (third) and total defense (third) than anyone on the 2017 Irish schedule, including Georgia, and lots of key pieces back, is back on ND’s schedule in 2018. And there’s no easing in.

The Wolverines come to town for the Sept. 1 season opener.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick hugs quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) following Notre Dame's 38-20 loss to Stanford Saturdayat Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)