What reimagining the QB development model means for Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush

THE REVOLUTION OF QB EVOLUTION

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

DeShone Kizer revelled in the exuberance watching the highlight-reel TD toss to Will Fuller a few times, then immersed himself in reality, or at least his version of it.

The first significant relief appearance of his Notre Dame football career, in game two of the 2015 season, elevated the then-redshirt freshman quarterback to folk hero status. But for the long term, the Irish needed a savior, with starting QB Malik Zaire’s right ankle buckling and breaking in the third quarter of a 34-27 survival at Virginia.

Kizer, now a second-year pro with the Green Bay Packers, still wasn’t certain that would turn out to be him.

“Quite frankly, as a redshirt freshman who got a chance to step in behind Malik, at the time I thought true freshman Brandon Wimbush might be the guy who would step in front of me,” Kizer said.

“He was that athletically gifted and that cerebral. Had enough talent that if I didn’t go out there and capitalize on that opportunity, you might have seen Brandon Wimbush as a true freshman starting in the Georgia Tech game the very next week.”

Which makes Wimbush’s .495 completion percentage and nation’s 86th-best pass-efficiency rating (121.4), two seasons later when he actually did become a starter, look like a mirage to Kizer – but also very fixable.

More importantly, it looks that way to Irish ninth-year head coach Brian Kelly, too now, after a seemingly transformative winter and equally convincing spring and early summer for the 6-foot-2, 225-pound senior.

“I have a great feel for what we’re going to see from Brandon on Sept. 1, much better than we did last year,” Kelly said in mid-June of the season-opening matchup with Michigan, which just happened to feature the nation’s No. 4 pass-efficiency defense in 2017 and is expected to be a tick better in 2018.

“That’s obviously the biggest difference in our football team, that we know our quarterbacks. We know our first-string quarterback and we know the guy who has been called upon to win games for us, in (junior) Ian Book. That’s a real good thing to have in your pocket.

“We went into last season not knowing either one of them and had to play to their strengths and weaknesses as the weeks unfolded. We have a greater understanding of Brandon and what he can do for us, so we knew where he’s going to be effective for us throwing the ball.”

Dramatic one-year statistical spikes by college quarterbacks aren’t all that uncommon. Among the eight players who finished in the top 10 nationally in 2017 in passing efficiency who had been starters the year before, four of them improved their ranking by 47 spots or more.

Wake Forest’s John Wolford, who shredded the Irish for 331 passing yards and 64 more on the ground in a 48-37 scorefest won by the Irish last November, was the third-worst starting QB in the entire FBS in passing efficiency as a junior in 2016.

He leaped from 107th to 10th in one season. UCF’s McKenzie Milton similarly transformed, from No. 103 to No. 2, behind only Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield’s NCAA-record 198.9 rating for Oklahoma.

Two of the names at or near the top of most of Notre Dame’s career passing records, Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, also made much more than incremental improvements from year to year.

Quinn (2003-06) failed to register in the top 100 nationally in year one as a starter, was No. 55 in year two and No. 7 in year three. Clausen went from outside the top 100 to 43rd to third.

But in the Kelly Era, there’s been more quarterback regression than progress.

Kizer is the only one of Wimbush’s five predecessors under Kelly, to start more than one game for the Irish who wasn’t eventually demoted long-term. And that group includes current Irish quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees.

Everett Golson showed the most improvement statistically among them, and it was modest at that — a 131.0 rating in 2012 as a redshirt freshman to 143.6 in 2014, sandwiched around a year in academic exile. But his turnovers spiked from 10 to 22, including losing eight fumbles in 2014, which don’t show up in the pass-efficiency stats.

So then when it comes to evolving Wimbush, a prolific runner last season and master in the red zone among his assets, is it really about finding a missing piece in his passing game? Or reimagining the way the pieces need to be put together?

In other words, an overhaul of the quarterback development model.

“It does have to be different here than it was at the other places I coached,” Kelly acknowledged. “The dynamics are different. The pressures are different. The outside noise is different. When they hear negative things said about them, it affects them, and it was affecting Brandon last year.”

While rebuilding confidence is a necessary step in the revised approach, it’s not the starting point.

“For me the most important step in my improvement as a quarterback was not my time with the quarterback coach but connecting with the play-caller (Charlie Weis),” said Quinn, now a football analyst for FOX Sports, CBS Sports and SiriusXM Radio.

“I think that’s true with Brandon, being with (offensive coordinator) Chip Long and getting continuity with him. Understand what he likes. See what he sees. Those things are huge.

“Whoever’s calling those plays, that’s who you’re an extension of, and you’ve got to have the same exact mindset of what he wants and what he’s thinking and what’s going to be successful.”

Since a couple of weeks after Notre Dame’s 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan. 1, a game in which Wimbush was benched for Book, the Teaneck, N.J., product has been wearing out a path to Long’s office.

“That’s the biggest transformation of the offseason, Brandon’s and my relationship,” said Long, who heads into his second season at ND. “Getting to visit, just about every day, for just about an hour, so he’s able to see it through my eyes.

“I can explain things so much better, whereas the first year you’re here, you’re doing every position, just so we can get out there and not fumble the damn snap and embarrass ourselves.”

But the connection has to be more than one of simply agreeing on and elevating X’s and O’s, Kelly said.

“If you’re not connected in the sense that ‘I know you’ve got my back. You trust in me,’ then sharing the same vision is only going to go so far,” he said. “Spending time together is the only way you’re going to get that. And that’s happening, and that has to continue to keep happening.”

Quarterback Brady Quinn, right, made a significant improvement after his first year as a starter under head coach Charlie Weis, left.

Quinn is the last Notre Dame long-term starting quarterback whose completion percentage in a season — .473 — actually fell short of Wimbush’s .495. The year was 2003, and Quinn was a freshman, a first-year starter who a quarter of the way through that season nudged incumbent No. 1 QB Carlyle Holiday into a position change.

That following summer, in a quest not to get leapfrogged on the depth chart himself in 2004, Quinn borrowed the keys to an old locked field on campus that doesn’t exist anymore, set up a quarterback net with holes and went through different scripts he had used in previous spring practices.

He’d vary his drops and throws, and have someone who normally taped the actual practices tape these one-on-none sessions, too. Then Quinn would review the tape and do it all over again.

Occasionally, he was able to coax wide receiver Jeff Samardzija to join him if the two-sport star wasn’t pitching a baseball somewhere else.

“I think with any quarterback trying to improve, you’ve got to take it upon yourself,” Quinn said.

Not that outside help doesn’t work, but in Quinn’s mind some of the high-priced, higher-profile QB gurus are to be avoided.

“It’s a racket, to me, to be honest with you,” he said. “They go to these guys, and they put out all these videos and crap, and they take them to the beach and all that.

“I literally went to meet George Whitfield, only because he was from Massillon Ohio. I was curious about what his makeup was, what he did. And I came away with how little football he actually knew and how much he was so focused on drills. And he wanted to know more of the drills that I had learned.

“It’s not football. Like the stuff they’re doing is not football. And a lot of those guys don’t know progressions, reads, how you view the game, how you should think about the game. Like what’s missing now with these quarterbacks is teaching them how to think and how to actually play the game, and understanding what the weaknesses are of the defense and all that.”

Until this offseason, Kelly had never discouraged his quarterbacks from getting an offseason tune-up, as he liked to call it, from Whitfield or one of his contemporaries. And publicly the Irish head coach projected indifference most of the time when pressed about it. Privately, though, there were concerns.

The lessons learned didn’t always knit with what Kelly and the Irish coaches were teaching. Sometimes the messages outright contradicted each other.

Wimbush, though, wanted to accelerate his progress this offseason and while he footed his own bill, per NCAA regulations, Kelly and Long helped set his GPS.

“He wasn’t going to anybody I didn’t trust,” Long said.

Taylor Kelly of the 3DQB Group in Orange County, Calif., was Arizona State’s starting quarterback for three of the four years Long coached as an assistant at the school. Taylor Kelly also happened to oppose Rees, of all people, as starting QBs in a 2013 Shamrock Series matchup in Arlington, Texas, in a game won by the Irish, 37-34.

Now the two have joined forces. Wimbush worked with the group, founded by former Major League pitcher and pitching coach Tom House, in both February and during his spring break from school in March.

“The things I like about Taylor and his group,” Brian Kelly said, “are No. 1, they’re in alignment with similar terminology and how we do things. No. 2, they use cutting-edge, state-of-the-art biomechanics. And 3, they use mental performance techniques at the quarterback position. That’s why I think they’re the best in the business.

“When Brandon came back to us, we noticed a difference. It was significant and it was immediate. Now it’s just a matter of building that routine and repetition on a day-today basis.”

Added Long, “Some of the things Taylor tells him are the exact same things we told him until we were blue in the face. But sometimes you need to hear it from a different voice. And Taylor not only played the position, he played in this offense.”

Kizer, too, has worked with the same group both before and after his March trade from Cleveland to Green Bay.

“I could see why it would benefit Brandon,” said Kizer, who still keeps in regular contact with Wimbush. “He runs the ball better than most running backs in college. He throws the ball with way more power than I can even put up as an NFL guy. I mean, he’s a guy who can push the ball 80 yards down the field.

“He has the cerebral ability to understand the offense to go out there and play at the highest level. He needed confidence. I think this experience will help. And because of the type of guy that he is, he’s going to be able to learn from those experiences, find his touch again, get out of his own head and go out there and play the ball that I know he can play.”

Offensive coordinator Chip Long has developed a better relationship with quarterback Brandon Wimbush heading into their second year together.

Long’s only true run at directly coaching quarterbacks came in the early days of his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Bobby Petrino at Louisville.

The starter for the Cardinals at the time was prolific passer Jeff Brohm, now the head football coach at Purdue.

“It was an awesome experience,” Long said. “You can coach any position when you’re working with coach Petrino, and you’re going to learn a lot about the quarterbacks, because his whole world revolved around that position, which it should.

“But the next year I was with the tight ends, and I’ve been with them ever since.”

In only four years of Kelly’s entire head coaching career of nearly three decades has his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator been the same person.

“I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both setups, especially where the quarterback development is concerned,” Kelly said. “I think in this instance it works really well, because Chip at the end of the day, his toughness, his demeanor is much more aligning with the toughness required of an offensive unit. Sometimes a quarterback coach doesn’t have that same kind of demeanor.”

And a big part of helping Wimbush develop is making the wide receivers around him tougher, per Long.

“Last year, they made contested catches in the Michigan State game,” he said, “and that was about it, if you think about it. In the spring, I think you saw the growth of that group, and that’s going to help Brandon’s confidence.

“People last year talked about how talented we were at wide receiver, but it’s more than running routes. We don’t just want the offensive line to set the standard, but every position group needs to show that competitiveness every day if that quarterback is going to show great improvement.”

As for Rees, the layer he adds to the developmental mix is helping Wimbush and his backups recognize defenses and understand the playbook.

“If you understand what the defense is trying to do and where your answers are, it gives you the opportunity to play fast and the game starts to slow down for you,” Rees said.

“My job now is to get those guys to (that) point. When you start to understand why you’re calling a play for specific looks, then you have the opportunity to really process everything at the line and deliver the ball on time.”

Quinn’s advice the last time he spoke to Wimbush?

“If you’re going to be the leader, you’ve got to be the first one in and last one out,” he recounted. “This has to be your job, especially when you’ve got downtime during the summer. You can’t turn off the switch.”

And Long hasn’t seen any hint of that since Wimbush arrived back in South Bend in mid-January for the winter semester.

“He finally decided, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Long said of Wimbush. “This is who I want to be. And this is what it’s going to take to do it.

“All winter, he’s been taking rep after rep by himself. It’s about growing up and learning what it takes to be the quarterback here at Notre Dame. You have to be able to tell people no. You can’t please everybody.

“When he did that, it gave him peace and built his confidence. He’s flying around and having fun again and right on track.” ❚

Can Brandon Wimbush improve upon his 49.5 completion percentage in his second year as Notre Dame's starter? 

The following story appears in the 2018 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.

Of the 23 Irish quarterbacks recruited in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present) who have completed their college careers, only three exhausted their eligiblity at ND and as QBs. Among the 20 who didn’t, 11 transferred, six switched positions, one switched positions then transferred, and two went pro early. 

1. Zak Kustok, transferred  

2. Arnaz Battle, moved to WR  

3. Gary Godsey, moved to TE  

4. Carlyle Holiday, moved to WR  

5. Jared Clark, moved to TE  

6. Matt LoVecchio, transferred  

7. Abram Elam, moved to safety and transferred  

8. Chris Olsen, transferred  

9. Brady Quinn, finished at ND as a QB  

10. Darrin Bragg, moved to wide receiver, pondered transferring, but came back  

11. David Wolke, transferred  

12. Evan Sharpley, finished at ND as a QB  

13. Demetrius Jones, transferred  

14. Zach Frazer, transferred  

15. Jimmy Clausen, went pro early  

16. Dayne Crist, transferred  

17. Andrew Hendrix, transferred  

18. Luke Massa, moved to wide receiver  

19. Tommy Rees, finished at ND as a QB  

20. Gunner Kiel, transferred  

21. Everett Golson, transferred  

22. Malik Zaire, transferred  

23. DeShone Kizer, went pro early 

 

24. Brandon Wimbush, senior on current roster 

25. Ian Book, junior on current roster  

26. Avery Davis, sophomore on current roster  

27. Phil Jurkovec, freshman on current roster  

Want to find out everything there is to know about the upcoming Irish football season? The ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview has you covered! The magazine is a must for both casual and die-hard Notre Dame football fans.

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  • Profiles on Jerry Tillery's enhanced focus heading into his junior season, life after "The Catch" for wide receiver Miles Boykin, the evolution of Notre Dame's quarterback position and where freshman prodigy Phil Jurkovec may fit into that mix, the long journey to ND for first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea and freshman defensive lineman Ja'mion Franklin's everlasting bond with his father.
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  • An exclusive one-on-one interview with ninth-year head coach Brian Kelly
  • Much more!

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