Exploring Notre Dame football's biggest mysteries heading into spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — What was officially National Signing Day for college football recruiting Part II, on Wednesday, also turned out to be a day to at least ask about the lingering mysteries regarding Notre Dame football, heading into the March 6 onset of spring practice.

Here's a smattering of the most compelling among them and a stab at the corresponding answers for each:

What should be expected of incumbent starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the spring?

Not a position change, to running back, or to wide receiver — as have been widely suggested — or even to All-American Quenton Nelson's vacated spot at left offensive guard.

“That's hard,” second-year Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long responded when told that many ND fans already had given up on the senior-to-be.

“I mean, (he's) a young man who led us to a lot of victories in the most explosive offense this place has seen in some time,” Long continued. “I would say. 'Just give him time.' He's a first-time starter, just like any young player.

“If you wish for it (a position change), beware of what you wish for.”

Wimbush paired the second-most prolific rushing seasons by a QB in ND history (803 yards, school-record 14 TDs) and one of the best efficiency rates in the red zone nationally with a pass-efficiency rating (121.4) that placed him 86th nationally.

That's roughly two points better than junior-to-be Ian Book (119.3) produced in a backup/relief role last season, though Book was at his best in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl win over LSU. Redshirted freshman Avery Davis is also in the mix as will be incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec, once he arrives in June.

There's no guarantee Wimbush won't get significantly any better in year two as a starter any more than there is that he will.

Of the 10 players who finished at the top of the national passing-efficiency standings in 2017, for instance, there were one fewer repeats (3) in the top 10 from 2016 (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and Toledo's Logan Woodside) than there were players who improved 45 spots or more (4) since 2016 (UCF's McKenzie Milton, Missouri's Drew Lock, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Wake Forest's John Wolford).

In fact, Milton (103rd to 2nd) and Wolford (107th to 10th) climbed more than 100 spots in a single season.

And for a little historical perspective, in an admittedly different offensive era, former Irish great Joe Montana had a 102.7 rating as a sophomore first-year starter in 1975, a career-best 134.4 as a senior in 1977 for a national championship team after a year off due to injury, and 124.9 as a fifth-year senior in 1978.

“I still want him to trust the process,” Long said of his expectations for Wimbush in the spring. “I see a more confident young man, that's for sure, a better bounce to his step, not much anxiety. He knows what to expect. He knows what the standards are.

“(Now) keep building on that. Keep perfecting your craft. You can't just be thinking of football (only) when you step into this building (the Guglielmino Athletics Complex).

“It's got to be on your mind constantly, and especially if you're going to play quarterback here at the University of Notre Dame. It's a different deal, and there's an expectation that you've got to uphold. It's not for everybody.”

Is it finally Dexter Williams' time to shine at running back?

The senior-to-be is one of only two scholarship running backs on the 2018 roster with as much as a single collegiate carry, but has amassed only 99 over three seasons himself, including a modest 39 in 2017.

It wasn't just intermittent and chronic injuries that kept Williams and his 9.2 average per carry a bystander more often than not last season. It was an incomplete skill set when it came to blocking/blitz pickup and pass receiving.

“The best part about last year is it's last year,” said running backs coach Autry Denson, who also happens to be Notre Dame's career leader in rushing yardage. “I'm determined — and not just with Dexter, but with all our guys — to make sure they are ready to go in all facets.

“I don't want one-trick ponies. That's not what I train, so I train guys holistically. Some of them will come to me with a lot more, and some won't. So they just have to have the willingness. And the thing about Dexter is he has the willingness.”

How did a potential talent drain on the defensive line turn into a potential strength for 2018?

Defensive line coach Mike Elston and the Irish coaching staff started extending a handful of new scholarship offers to defensive linemen during and after the early signing period (Dec. 20-22), just in case.

“I had an emergency on deck, with (Jerry) Tillery possibly leaving, (Jonathan) Bonner hanging it up,” Elston said. “There was even conversations with Jay Hayes at times. The D-tackle position for me was scary, but we were able to recruit those guys back.”

Bonner and Hayes were contemplating turning down their fifth-year options. Tillery, a true junior nose guard last season, was considering early entry into the NFL Draft but will defer his NFL dream until after the 2018 season.

“I think there was a consistent message in his ear from everybody that was here at Notre Dame,” Elston said of what brought Tillery back. “Jerry and I have built a great relationship. He knows he can trust me. He knows I have his best interest in mind.

“And if he truly was a first-round draft pick at this point or a second-round draft pick and he was going to have secured money, hell then I would have helped him pack his bags. But at the end of the day he's got three or four things to work on.”

Elston and Kelly met with Tillery, ND's leader in sacks (4.5) and top tackler among defensive linemen in 2017 (56), to lay out the areas of improvement needed that could turn him into a potential first-rounder. And he'll be doing it at the defensive tackle position in 2018, flip-flopping roles with Bonner.

“Coach Kelly did some great research with the NFL executives and GMs, and gave Jerry just some solid, concrete numbers, and he listened,” Elston said. “His parents were on board and his parents knew what was best for him.

“Sometimes when they have someone else in their ear that says something different than what we're saying, then that becomes the issue. But everybody was on the same page, and it worked out well.”

What will the post-Harry Hiestand Era at Notre Dame look like?

Recently promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn will carry over at least one foundational philosophy from predecessor Harry Hiestand — the best five linemen, regardless of position, will start, and Quinn will then fit and develop them to specific positions.

Kelly said there's plenty of other areas of continuity and commonality between Hiestand, the Chicago Bears' new O-Line coach, and Quinn, who had been an analyst and assistant strength coach the past three years at ND.

“But Harry has his own style,” Kelly said, “and I don't want Jeff to be anybody but Jeff. Look, I had plenty of opportunities to hire Jeff Quinn for other roles on this staff over the time that he was here. It wasn't the right fit.

“I was looking for the right time and the right fit to hire him. It didn't diminish who he was as a coach in my eyes. But when you're putting together nine and 10 staff members, it has to be the right fit.

“When Harry decided to move on to the NFL, this opened up an opportunity for (Quinn). It was not a preordained position. He had to go win this job in the interview process.”

Quinn and Kelly go all the way back to Division II Grand Valley State in 1989, the year Kelly was promoted from grad assistant to defensive coordinator. Two years later, when Kelly became the Lakers' head coach, Quinn became a key figure in Kelly's evolution as an offensive coach.

Quinn, in fact, was Kelly's co-pilot offensively for Grand Valley's Division II national titles in 2002 and 2003. The two worked together there until Kelly left for Central Michigan in 2004. Quinn was the associate head coach and offensive coordinator under Kelly for the Chippewas, then offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for Cincinnati under Kelly from 2007-09.

“We opened this up nationally, and we had some outstanding candidates apply for this job and so he had to go through a process,” Kelly said of Quinn. “Even though I knew what he was capable of, he had to be able to sell himself and what he could do here at Notre Dame. But I think he's going to be his own man.

“You'll see an offensive line that fits around what Chip (Long) wants to do offensively. So you better be able to run the football. You better be able to pass protect, pin and pull, get out on the perimeter. And I think other things that he can bring to the table will be exciting for us.”

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) runs the ball against Boston College Sept. 16 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)