Notebook: Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush springs forward with a strong first impression

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Putting aside the many caveats and disclaimers about the ambiguous nature of the first day of spring football, a good first impression is never a bad thing.

And when the words Brandon Wimbush’s footwork spilled out of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s mouth Tuesday morning as one of the positive takeaways following the first of the allotted 15 spring sessions, it marked the continuation of a shift Kelly had seen in the senior-to-be quarterback all winter.

Another step in the right direction.

“You could see a big difference,” Kelly said of the footwork in the passing game, which happened to be one of the attributable shortcomings during Wimbush’s uneven first season as ND’s starting QB and a big reason he’s in an open competition with junior Ian Book this spring for the top spot on the depth chart.

“Throwing the football,” Kelly continued, “with the kind of assertiveness that you want to see.”

Kelly said the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Teaneck, N.J., product never wavered as a leader or in his commitment to get better during a 2017 season in which he produced prolific numbers running the football but the first sub-50 percent completion percentage by an Irish starter (.495) since ND all-time passing leader Brady Quinn put up a .473 mark in 2003.

But, per Kelly, there has been a bump in Wimbush’s time invested beyond what’s required.

“He's in there after weight training, working on his mechanics, throwing, watching film,” Kelly said. “I've seen a guy that clearly understands that there's more to it than just Saturdays. It's been great to see that he's taken his development to the next level.”

Practice No. 2, also in shorts and no pads, is set for Thursday, before the Irish take a hiatus for spring break. The third session is set for March 20, with spring practice concluding April 21 with the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Democracy returns

Following a 4-8 season in 2016, Kelly went autocratic with his selection of captains for the 2017 season.

This week, he handed the power of selecting the leadership back to the players.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill was a repeat selection for 2018. He was joined by fellow fifth-year players, center Sam Mustipher and punter Tyler Newsome in the show of democracy. A fourth captain, Kelly said, would be voted on and announced at the end of spring practice.

“We had in total 25 players receive votes for captain, and we had about six or seven that were log-jammed in that fourth position,” Kelly explained.

Kelly allowing the players to not only vote, but the votes to count, was consistent with his offseason message about peer accountability.

“They (the players) knew a lot of things last year were going to be made by me and we were going to get the culture back where it needed to be,” he said. “This (offseason) has clearly been a path of empowering our football team to take this over.”

Personnel matters

There were few surprises among the players who aligned with the first-team and offense and defense Tuesday, with shifting likely to occur throughout the spring.

Among the notable first-teamers was sophomore Josh Lugg as the new face on an offensive line that aligned from left tackle to right: Robert Hainsey, Lugg, Mustipher, Alex Bars and Tommy Kraemer.

Also of note, regarding new O-Line coach Jeff Quinn’s unit, sophomore Aaron Banks lined up as the backup left tackle. Banks worked at guard during a redshirt season in 2017.

Former Irish All-America tackle Mike McGlinchey, fresh off his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and former offensive guard Hunter Bivin took in the offensive line drills during the media’s window on practice.

Mustipher said all-America guard Quenton Nelson and tight end Durham Smythe, also NFL Combine participants, watched later in practice and shared their experiences with the next wave of ND linemen.

“It’ll always be that way as long as we’re here,” Mustipher said of the offensive line culture of former players coming back to help.

The starting three wide receivers Tuesday morning were sophomore Michael Young and senior Miles Boykin on the outside, with senior Chris Finke in the slot. Senior Alizé Mack was the No. 1 tight end.

On defense, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath ran out as the No. 1 strong safety on a day when incumbent junior starter Jalen Elliott missed practice because of an exam.

Six of the seven early-enrolled freshmen also missed practice for the same reason: Linebackers Ovie Oghoufo, Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer; wide receiver Micah Jones; running back Jahmir Smith; and tight end George Takacs (who is out of spring practices anyway due to knee surgery).

Cornerback Houston Griffith was the only one in that group to get his first practice under his belt.

Defensive identity

Clark Lea has perpetuated many of the elements that allowed one-and-done defensive coordinator Mike Elko to make significant statistical gains with the Irish in 2017, his only season in South Bend.

But it’s already becoming clear the contrasts between the first-year successor, Lea, and Elko, now at Texas A&M.

“I’ve been in his meetings,” Kelly said. “It is a decidedly different approach in the sense of how he communicates, but he communicates extremely effectively.

“I love his meetings. It’s a combination of utilizing different teaching techniques through video, power point, one-on-one conversations. I’m pretty excited about where that’s going.”

It translated well on the first day of actual field work.

“The intensity of our defense — it started with our run-support drill,” Kelly said. “It’s something that you do every day, but you could see a difference in the way we ran to the football.

“There were times last year — and we made progress last year, make no mistake about it — but there’s a different feel about the way this defense is moving around, the intensity of the group. That stood out to me today.”

Recasting the mock drafts

With the NFL Combine having recently concluded, a new wave of mock drafts are out, including a full seven-round projection released Tuesday by Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller.

Miller has Irish offensive guard Quenton Nelson going second overall to the New York Giants, and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey going later in the first round, 24th to Carolina.

Four rounds later, Josh Adams is projected to land with his hometown Philadelphia Eagles, with the No. 169 pick overall.

Miller has tight end Durham Smythe landing in Dallas with a sixth-round pick (208th overall) and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown ending up with the Raiders later in that round (217th), a head-scratcher given St. Brown’s strong performance at the combine.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly looks on during ND's first football practice of the spring, Tuesday inside the Loftus Center. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)