Amid defining the QB order, hybrid Avery Davis shines in Blue-Gold Game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly put into words, moments after the 89th annual Blue-Gold Game, what the optics had been saying all along this spring.

Senior Brandon Wimbush has reasserted himself as Notre Dame’s No. 1 option at quarterback, though Kelly used the terms “1A” and “1B” to describe Wimbush and junior challenger Ian Book, respectively.

“I think it’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” the ninth-year Irish head coach illuminated. “You know, that’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.

“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us.”

What has been changing over the 15 spring practices and was accentuated Saturday before a crowd of 31,729 at Notre Dame Stadium was just how much the Irish No. 3 quarterback may impact the offense come September.

In a game that featured a wacky playing and scoring format, a distorted 47-44 score in favor of the Blue, 123 offensive plays and 913 yards in offense, sophomore QB Avery Davis was one of the most intriguing and electric parts of the scorefest.

In part, because he’s only part quarterback anymore.

Even in a vanilla game plan, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Texan was the game’s third-leading rusher with 30 yards on 11 carries, most of those while playing the running back position; caught two passes for 24 yards as a wide receiver; and completed both of his pass attempts as a QB for 26 yards.

ND’s other emerging hybrid player, fellow sophomore Jafar Armstrong, had some strong moments Saturday as well.

The 6-1, 213-pound running back/wide receiver experiment was the game’s second-leading rusher — 50 yards on six carries, including a 25-yard scoring run. and the former Kansas state sprint champ caught the only pass thrown his direction, for a 21-yards gain.

“I think they are definitely pieces to this offensive system that we missed at times last year,” Kelly said. “I think it gives us, as you saw, the ability to go with some split backs, which gives us a lot of options.

“Armstrong was a little bit hobbled with a high ankle sprain, but we saw a physicality in his ability to run. He’s strong. He’s really got some pretty good instincts and can catch the football.

“And then Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy. He can do a little bit of everything for us.”

The ghosts of past Blue-Gold Game MVP one-hit wonders, like Junior Jabbie and Christian Olsen, would suggest some restraint is due where Davis and Armstrong are concerned. The difference perhaps is that Armstrong has performed like that consistently when healthy, while Davis has been surging with each passing week.

“I embrace it 100 percent,” Davis said of his new role, a year after spending last season as a redshirt and scout team QB. “I know I can help this team.”

“There was an adjustment period. The first couple of days were tough, but once I got the hang of what I was doing and started making plays, it started getting pretty fun.”

Davis, who said he had never played wide receiver in his life before this spring, estimates his time in the 40-yard dash to be under 4.5 seconds and will be tested officially soon along with his teammates.

“Speed is never going to be an issue with me,” he said. “What I need to do is put more muscle on in my chest and shoulder areas, because I’m getting hit a lot more. I’ve got to learn the playbook better, work on my routes, work on my hands, work on everything.

“All this is going to make me a better quarterback long term.”

And the door to being a full-time QB sometime in the future remains ajar.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, ‘What do you want to do? You can stay in that position or we think you’ve got some talent to help our offense.’” Kelly said. “And he wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you know, you need to play this year, and so this gives him that opportunity.”

Wimbush, who much of the Irish fan base seemed to want to move to another position after finishing 83rd nationally in passing efficiency last season but was prolific as a runner, actually wasn’t supposed to run at all on Saturday, and largely complied.

“I told him, ‘I’m standing back out here in the field with the whistle, because I’m going to blow it once you take off.’ ” Kelly related. “So if you want the play to end with a sack, that’s what you’ll do. If not, hang in there and keep your eyes downfield and let’s try to make some plays.”

And that he did.

With both his predecessor, DeShone Kizer, and ND’s next big thing in QBs, Phil Jurkovec, both in attendance Saturday, Wimbush threw for 341 yards on 19-of-33 accuracy with an interception and two TD passes — a 64-yarder to Citrus Bowl MVP Myles Boykin and a six-yarder to Chase Claypool.

That latter probably would have been named Blue-Gold Game MVP if Kelly hadn’t eliminated that practice. The junior finished with game highs in receptions (6), receiving yards (151) and TD receptions (2).

What Wimbush’s numbers don’t necessarily tell is how much improved he has looked — and looked Saturday — in terms of ball placement and field vision, two of the holes in his game late last season.

“Repetition, doing it consistently, play in and play out,” Kelly said of Wimbush’s next step. “We’re not there yet, but we made a huge jump forward. Last spring I told him when I went home, ‘I didn’t feel so good about the way you played.’ I think I’m going to go home feeling a whole lot better today.”

Book, meanwhile, was 17-of-30 for 292 yards and an 85-yard TD to Claypool, with no interceptions.

Of note, tight end Cole Kmet reeled in two catches for 24 yards less than 24 hours after making his first collegiate pitching start for the Irish baseball team, yielding three runs in 4 2/3 innings in a 9-1 loss to Virginia Tech on Friday night.

Senior Dexter Williams, meanwhile, included a 72-yard run in his team-high 117 rushing yards on 11 carries.

“You know, as a head coach, you’re never happy, you’re never sad (after a spring game),” Kelly said. “You know, you’ve got to look at both sides of the ball.”

For a defense that’s expected to be Kelly’s best since 2012 and maybe eventually rivals its success, Saturday’s format and scaled-down schematics didn’t lend itself to impressive team numbers. It should be noted that the vaunted 2012 defense played in a Blue-Gold Game with a 42-31 final score and similar format.

Individually, though, there were plenty of standouts on Saturday, including grad senior linebacker Drue Tranquill. He had a game-high nine tackles with a sack in his first quasi-game since moving from rover. Backup defensive end Ade Ogundeji recorded six tackles, including two of the defense’s eight sacks.

Jalen Elliott recorded an interception after the safety group as a whole garnered zero in 2017. That’s the only time in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present) that has happened. Another safety, Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, collected six tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

“So if you look at every time he’s near the football, there’s high contact with him,” Kelly said, “and so that’s what we were looking at that position: High contact, plays the ball well in the air, a very smart football player.

“He’s what we thought he would be.”

And so is Wimbush, four months and some change from having to do it under brighter lights and higher stakes Sept. 1 against Michigan, which ranked third in total defense last season.

“I went back home and spent a couple of days back home and debriefed,” the Teaneck, N.J.. product said of what turned the momentum from a late-season funk. “And I think that was awesome.

“And then I took the next step in my training process and went with some other people (3DQB led by Taylor Kelly) I thought that really helped me through the process to get to where I am today.

“Sometime you just lose sight of what got you where you are, and I think that happened to me last year. I went back to the details, the fundamentals.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Avery Davis (3) runs the ball during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold spring football game, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.