FOOTBALL

Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush hits reset button on his passing game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He cut short his post-Citrus Bowl visit in January with his mother in Georgia to try to find the reset button for his suddenly laboring football career in, of all places, New Jersey.

That’s where Notre Dame’s incumbent — but challenged — starter at quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, used to take two trains (and sometimes a bus as well) for a daily 45-minute commute from his home in Teaneck to his high school, St. Peter’s Prep, in Jersey City and back again.

All in the hopes of eventually becoming a better quarterback and a better person down the road.

Where Wimbush’s 72 percent completion passing percentage and 37-to-5 TD-to-interception ratio his prep senior season — strikingly similar to the 2017 numbers of the latest Irish QB phenom, Phil Jurkovec (73 percent, 39-to-6) — helped make him the No. 60 player in the 2015 recruiting class overall per Rivals.com.

The only QB Irish ninth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly has lured with a higher national recruiting class standing, at ND or his previous coaching stops, was one-and-done transfer Gunner Kiel (No. 20, in 2012).

New Jersey is also where Wimbush first crossed paths with Madei Williams, a former backup QB to Donovan McNabb at Syracuse in the late 1990s who has become a renowned quarterback whisperer/private tutor on the East Coast.

And almost seven years to the day of their first session, in which Williams had to recalibrate an elongated throwing motion from eighth-grader Wimbush’s many years as a standout baseball player, the two joined forces again in January.

“He’s put himself into a position where he has to compete all over again, which is actually a pretty good thing,” Williams said of the nation’s 86th-ranked passer as a first-year starter in 2017.

“That’s because pressure makes diamonds, and healthy competition just makes everyone better. You’ve got to force yourself mentally, physically and emotionally rise to the occasion.

“I think he’s up to the challenge, but he has a lot to prove — not only to himself and his coaches, but also his teammates.”

The senior-to-be, with two seasons of college eligibility remaining, certainly looked the part to Williams in a small-but-convincing sample size.

“Absolutely amazing,” was Williams’ assessment after nine days of mental and physical retooling. “Now it’s just a matter of getting the job done when the pressure’s on.”

The pressure begins to ratchet up on Tuesday, when Notre Dame stages the first of its allotted 15 spring practices. The final of those, the annual Blue-Gold Game, is set for April 21 at Notre Dame Stadium.

The scrutiny and stakes both ramp up exponentially the next time said stadium is filled to capacity, Sept. 1 for the prime time season opener with Michigan and the nation’s No. 4 pass-efficiency defense in 2017.

Assuming Wimbush is still the No. 1 QB option, it’d be the eighth top 45 pass defense he will have faced in his 13th career start, sixth top 25 pass defense and third in the top 10.

In comparison, Jimmy Clausen, the last ND quarterback to finish in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency, faced zero top 10 pass defenses in his final college season (2009), one in the top 25 and four in the top 45. Six of the 12 that season were ranked 85th or lower.

Florida’s Tim Tebow and Boise State's Kellen Moore edged Clausen for the national pass-efficiency title that season (161.4), two years after Clausen debuted with a 103.9 rating behind an offensive line that allowed a then-NCAA record 58 sacks.

Wimbush had a much more seasoned surrounding cast in a 10-3 season for the Irish in 2017, including two All-America offensive linemen. But he also had to navigate a new offensive play-caller/coordinator (Chip Long), a new QBs coach (Tom Rees) and Long’s interpretation of the Kelly offense.

“It was definitely a roller-coaster ride,” Williams said of his observations of the 2017 season for Wimbush. “A lot of highlights and then some moments where you just scratch your head and shake your head and not really understand what the heck is going on.”

Junior-to-be Ian Book is the presumed biggest threat to concoct a depth chart uprising at QB — for now. Jurkovec — a 6-foot-5, 204-pound June arrival — is the perceived long-term challenger of note.

Book finished with a slightly lower season pass-efficiency rating than senior-to-be Wimbush (119.3 to 121.4), but was spectacular in relief of Wimbush (14-of-19, 164 yards 2 TDs) in rallying the Irish past LSU and its elite pass defense, 21-17, on Jan. 1.

For Wimbush the erosion of public confidence has as much to do with the optics as the numbers. Sometimes the most routine of plays seemed like the most impossible for him to execute.

“You could tell he was trying to guide the ball as opposed to just throwing it and releasing it and flicking his wrist with some confidence,” Williams said. “Stuff that you don’t think about when you’re not struggling.

“Now, you’re thinking about it and the ball goes behind and you’re overshooting it — stuff he’s never ever had problems with.

“All of that can be fixed. It’s nothing where he couldn’t handle the pressure. It was just a matter of not correcting the bad habits he was creating throughout the season — whether it was himself not being able to correct those bad habits or coach Rees not being able to correct those bad habits that were occurring mechanically.

“I just didn’t see that. I didn’t see that happening. I saw inconsistency and I saw regression.”

But the college football world also saw a quarterback who was dynamic in the red zone, with an intentional kneel-down against N.C. State to let the clock run out and a fourth-down incompletion in the regular-season finale against Stanford as his only red zone shortfalls.

He paired his 1,870 passing yards and 16 TD tosses with the second-most prolific rushing season ever for an Irish quarterback (803 yards, 5.7 per carry) and a school-record for QBs in rushing TDs (14), which almost worked against him from a perception standpoint.

“You listen to these analysts speak about him, and they’re referring to him as more running back than an actual quarterback,” Williams said. “And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This kid is a passer first and has always been a passer first.’

“People are questioning his ability to be a quarterback on the college level, which is absolutely B.S. He just had to go back to the drawing board, which he did.”

Williams’ first directive was for Wimbush to dial down his consumption of social media, especially as it pertained to the QB’s own performances.

“Sometimes what happens is it’s like a pitcher or anybody or a basketball player who loses his stroke,” Williams said. “Sometimes it gets to the point where it’s more mental than it is physical.

“Quarterbacks can be very, very superstitious and we can be head cases sometimes. I’ve been there. I’ve shared a few stories with him about my past. Sometimes you get in a rut. And sometimes you’ve got to work yourself out of that rut and you eventually do.

“It’s just a matter of going back to the things that led you to be so successful and be recruited by Notre Dame and everyone else in the country. Sometimes all you need is to get away and refocus, re-center your mind, start back anew.

“I think he’s excited and enthusiastic about this next journey that’s coming.”

Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush (7) slips by USC linebacker Cameron Smith (35) during the ND's 49-14 romp on Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)