Noie: QBs Ian Book, Brandon Wimbush not lacking starter's confidence for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Stepping inside Loftus Center for Notre Dame spring football practice Saturday was like going Back to the Future, only without Marty McFly or a DeLorean or a catchy Huey Lewis tune.

Back in 1993, as Lou Holtz presided over spring practice from a golf cart with a pipe in his hand and his eyes locked on whether the right guard placed his hand at exactly the same spot on every snap, one quarterback question would not go away.

Would it be the senior, the junior or the highly-touted freshman from Pennsylvania who would be the starter by the time the season opener against a Big Ten team arrived?

Twenty-five years and four coaches removed from Holtz later, the same quarterback question remains. Will it be the senior, the junior or the highly-touted freshman from Pennsylvania who will be the starter when the season opener against a Big Ten team arrives?

Back then, the senior (Kevin McDougal) became the starter over the junior (Paul Failla) and the freshman (Ron Powlus). Now who will it be — senior Brandon Wimbush, who at times flourished and faltered in his first season as a starter in 2017, or junior Ian Book, seemingly relegated to a career backup role but now with real opportunity to show his starter’s stuff?

Any other query around a program that won 10 games last season really doesn’t matter. Not the one about how the Irish will adapt to Clark Lea, the third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. Not about how they’re going to move forward without the Yoda-like aura of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Not if the Irish can field a left side of an offensive line anywhere close to last season’s guard/tackle terror tandem of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.

Not who’s going to step in and gobble up some of the 1,430 rushing yards left behind by Josh Adams. Or even what the heck athletic director Jack Swarbrick was thinking when he gave the green light to a 2018 schedule that has the Irish hopscotching from the Midwest to the West Coast back to the Midwest to the East Coast and again out to the West Coast for as grueling a five-game-in-five-week stretch at season’s end as this storied program has ever seen.

Nothing else really matters right now except this — who’s going to make it all go? Wimbush or Book? Book or Wimbush?

“All competition’s healthy, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field or in life,” Wimbush said Saturday in his first meeting with the media since he was benched for the second half of the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl. “Everywhere you go, you’ve got to have competition. We’ve been pushing each other and it’s worked out for the best for us.”

Wimbush understands that everything about his game just has to be better. In every phase. From preparation during the week to decisions made in the heat of being flushed from the pocket moment to his footwork to film study to consistency. Everything he thought he had down, had right last season, he’s got to do more of this time around. And do it all better.

His game was good last season — 803 rushing yards and a school-record 14 touchdowns, 1,870 passing yards and 16 scores — but it wasn’t good enough to avoid three critical losses where he didn’t play well in any of them.

Can Wimbush be the big-game, bright-lights guy needed to make it at Notre Dame?

Consistency has been the buzzword in the position meeting rooms of the Gug. The practice field. Team meetings in Isban Auditorium. Wimbush still seeks it. Coach Brian Kelly demands it. That the quarterback was too inconsistent last year simply cannot be the case this season.

Kelly won’t tolerate it. Not again. If Wimbush is more consistent that Book, it will be Wimbush. If Book’s more consistent, it will be his job. If both struggle with it and freshman Phil Jurkovec arrives from Gibsonia, Pa., in the summer with it, well, who knows? Can’t happen? Won’t happen?

See Tagovailoa, Tua.

Wimbush worked every drill on Saturday with the first-string offense. Book was right behind him running with the second string. Both had their moments when they looked the starter part. Like when Wimbush hit wide receiver Miles Boykin on a pretty fade route in 11-on-11, or Book’s laser to Javon McKinley up the seam for a big gain.

Both also had throws that they’d want back. Like when Wimbush zipped a zinger that bounced off Boykin in the corner of the end zone, or Book delivering way high to a wide open Freddy Canteen. Those are plays that have to be made and passes that have to be completed in the calm climes of Loftus Center. Can’t do it on a Saturday morning in spring, how will they do it on a fall Saturday evening on the road when the stakes are higher?

Book insists he’s not thinking about it being a competition every time he steps up to make a read or a throw. Wimbush doesn’t feel any additional pressure of possibly having to play well enough to keep his job. In his mind, it’s still his and he has zero plans on giving it up. He feels more prepared to handle everything that comes with playing the position. He better be. He has to be.

Book may not pass the eye test – barely 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds – but he just has IT. See Orlando on New Year’s Day for further evidence. It's also there with Wimbush. Somewhere.

However this shakes out — and Kelly would like someone to step forward before April becomes May — each will have been given a shot to succeed.

“It’s been a fair competition,” Book said. “It’s a healthy competition where we both are just pushing each other to be better.

“It’s been great so far.”

Book’s closed a lot of the perceived gap since last spring. He’s right there over Wimbush’s shoulder. He’s ready. He wants it. The kid’s always said that he’s prepared every day like he’s the starter. Come Labor Day weekend, he just might be. Wimbush believes he’s again the best option. As much as he showed last year, there might be more. Has to be.

Who's going to be the eventual answer? Everyone’s watching. And waiting.

How will this move end?

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush (7) and Ian Book (12) run drills during Notre Dame Football Practice Tuesday, March 6, 2018, inside Loftus Center. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)