Noie: Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush finding his voice as (still) the starter

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He took the necessary steps and put in the required work to be THE guy for the Notre Dame football team, even if he still isn’t THAT guy.

And he may never be. But skirting the lunatic fringe of leadership is a step forward for mild-mannered Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

When spring practice commenced last month, Wimbush knew he needed to deliver in various areas. Make better decisions with the ball. Be better with his footwork in the passing game. Play with more consistency required to compete at the highest level in the game’s most important position. Handle the white-hot spotlight that comes with the job. Do all that, and Wimbush likely would exit April the same way he entered March — just enough ahead of Ian Book as the starter.

He did. He is.

Even with the Irish stuck inside for all but two of 15 practices, Wimbush didn’t let any outside noise influence the commitment to his craft. He had to be better than when last season ended, when he was stuck watching Book direct the last-minute winning drive over LSU in the Citrus Bowl.

Wimbush worked. He got better. With his feet. With his decisions. With his throws. With his understanding that there are no days or plays off. There still were times when he was too high on this route or too low or late on that one, but nothing Wimbush did through 14 practices leading into Saturday staggered his status.

Saturday did nothing to wound Wimbush. It was designed that way. The 89th Blue-Gold “game” basically was a controlled practice — minus the air horn and 24 periods of work — with a heavy emphasis on the passing game. You know, just in case the Irish have to throw it 50 times this fall (run-game traditionalists roll their eyes at that one).

Wimbush and Book were 1A and 1B entering spring. On Saturday, Brian Kelly said it remains 1A and 1B as they exited. Nothing that happened Saturday changed that designation.

Wimbush took most of the reps with the No. 1 unit all spring. Did it again Saturday. He’s the starter and likely will be when all of this really matters come Labor Day Weekend when a certain team from Ann Arbor comes rolling into Notre Dame Stadium in prime time.

Wimbush has remained the guy even though he hasn’t said it at the required levels. Late in spring, after Wimbush was especially sharp with his throws and his pocket presence, Kelly talked of what he also needs to see different from No. 7 than last season when he rushed for 803 yards, passed for 1,870 and accounted for 30 total touchdowns. Then, he operated in a way that Kelly likened to taking a deep, calming breath and going to work. That was fine when Notre Dame won 10 games in 2017, but not now. Not this year. With this team. With that schedule. Ten wins and some more Citrus Bowl-like success won’t cut it. Time to do more. Be more. Say more.

To get there, Kelly wants Wimbush to dial up that intensity. In the huddle. On the sideline. Don’t just carry himself as the quarterback, let everyone know he’s the quarterback.

Own it with his work and with his words. Some swagger.

“When he’s amped up and he’s talking and he’s communicating, that comforts the other 10 players,” Kelly said earlier this month. “They know if Brandon Wimbush is out there barking and telling guys what to do, they know we’re going to score.”

Easier said than done. At least now. Maybe again later this season. Wimbush isn’t going be all-out boil for four quarters. Maybe not even for four plays.

He’s more steady simmer than blowtorch.

“I’m not that guy, man,” Wimbush said. “I’m not going to fake it when I’m out there and try to yell at you. I’ll get there.”

He has, though it’s not something the NBC sideline camera caught Saturday. Or come September.

“It’s nothing everybody’s going to see, my face turning red and spitting out of my mouth,” Wimbush said. “But when I’m up there, I’m motivating the guys and motivating the receivers.”

Wimbush just can’t motivate in the same stoic way he did last year — calm, quiet — if he wants different results in the biggest games — see Georgia, Miami (Fla.) Stanford.

He understands that. But the transformation takes time.

“I try my best to lead by example and when the time permits, I do open my mouth and let my voice be heard,” he said. “I do need to start speaking more.”

Wimbush barked at least once this spring. It felt weird. Different. Good.

“I can do it, man,” he said.

Last April, Kelly left spring practice not satisfied with what he saw from Wimbush. Too inconsistent. Too quiet. He’s worked to be more consistent. Was Saturday. That left Kelly leaving spring behind feeling a lot better.

Still, for all the feel-good numbers posted by Wimbush and by Book in what became a 47-44 gold (offense) victory, only one really matters. For Wimbush. For Book. For the run game, the revamped offensive line, the defense that returns nine starters. Anything. Everything. Even for Kelly, entering his ninth season as head coach.

The number has nothing to do with all of them thrown around Saturday for the 31,729 in the stadium stands. Not the 341 passing yards on 33 attempts with 19 completions and two touchdowns produced by Wimbush or the 292 yards and one score from Book. Not the interception that Wimbush tried to shoehorn into coverage, or the 64-yard score to Miles Boykin that he bounced back with on his next throw.

Any of that success doesn’t really matter. Why?

“Certainly, it’s not Michigan,” Kelly said.

Exactly.

The only number that matters moving forward is 132 — now the number of days remaining until the 2018 season opener at home against the Wolverines. Under the lights. In prime time. Everyone’s going to be watching.

That’s when the real questions will really be answered. About this team. About this quarterback. About this season.

Wimbush understands he’s got to be different. Be better. There’s something about him that says he will. Just don’t expect him to shout about it.

tnoie@ndinsider.com (574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN Notre Dame’s quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) runs the ball during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring football game Saturday, April 21, 2018, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.