Brandon Wimbush knows there's turbulence ahead, and the Notre Dame QB is embracing it

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

CULVER, Ind.

The only thing seemingly missing from Brandon Wimbush’s relaunch Friday as Notre Dame’s clear-cut, No. 1 option at quarterback was Celine Dion framing the proceedings with an inspirational serenade.

Otherwise, the soothing breeze off Lake Maxinkuckee, the 73-degree weather at the start of the first Irish training camp session of 2018 and deferred oppressive humidity provided an ideal backdrop for Wimbush to put into action the behind-the-scenes, summer metamorphosis those around him are so convinced is real.

“When he’s confident, there’s nobody that will stop this offense, because everybody believes in Brandon Wimbush,” offered ND head coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish are staging their first five practices at their offsite home, Culver Academies, less than an hour south of campus.

“So if he walks out there and he is confident in what he’s doing, he has the Larry Bird effect on everybody, where everybody raises their play.”

What’s definitely is for real is the storm that’s coming.

Kelly knows it. Wimbush’s skeptics will certainly let you know they know it. Wimbush himself actually purports to welcome it.

Then again, the senior from Teaneck N.J., has seen it before, at least its scariest part.

Michigan junior defensive end Rashan Gary — with apologies to Stanford Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love — is arguably the best player Notre Dame will face this season. Much less arguably, the 6-foot-5, 287-pound defensive end is the best player on the best defense the Irish will see this season, with perhaps the nation’s top coordinator on either side of the ball, in Don Brown.

Gary’s imposing strength alone would make him elite. But the Plainfield, N.J. product pairs that with a 4.57-second clocking in the 40-yard dash, which is faster than five of the wide receivers and 12 of the running backs logged five months ago at the invitation-only NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

How that translated statistically in 2017 was 66 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss with six sacks on the nation’s No. 3 team in total defense. How that translates to next-level potential is that both ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay project him as the No. 3 prospect overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.

In anticipation about what that will look like in likely his final college season, Gary topped The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s list of top 50 freaks in college football (ND cornerback/track sprinter Troy Pride checked in at No. 34).

And the whole freak show arrives at Notre Dame Stadium for the season opener, Sept. 1. No warmup. No buffer.

“My mom (Heather) and his mom (Jennifer Shepherd) talk real often,” Wimbush said Friday after practice. “I’ve known him since the seventh or eighth grade. He’s been a monster ever since, but I’m excited to play against him.”

Wimbush’s last game at St. Peter’s Prep before heading to Notre Dame featured Gary on the opposing team, Paramus Catholic.

Wimbush had gone the entire 2014 season not only without getting sacked, but without taking a hit on a pass attempt. That is until Gary and Paramus pressured him early and often in the New Jersey non-public, group 4 state championship game at MetLife Stadium. By game’s end they had collected six sacks, with Gary accounting for two.

But Wimbush countered that with 167 passing yards and two touchdowns, and 158 rushing yards on 11 carries and another score in a dominating 34-18 St. Peter’s victory. The two also squared off in the 2013 state title game, won by Paramus.

“We still talk,” Wimbush said of Gary, who flirted with Notre Dame during the recruiting process but never seriously enough to take an actual official visit. “But we don’t talk much about this (Michigan-ND) game. We kind of keep that off the radar.

“But I think sometime this month, we’ll chat about it.”

And sometime this month, in fact intermittently, Kelly has to try to recreate the storm.

He finally has a defensive roster capable of doing it, but the trick is finding the balance between building on the progress Wimbush has made since his confidence and passing prowess cratered late last season and testing the sustainability of his rebound.

On Friday, there was none of that, naturally. With NCAA-mandated shorts and helmets rather than full pads this early in training camp, even 11-on-11 periods had more of a walkthrough feel to them than actual full-speed work.

“I thought he did some really good things, things that he had to build on,” Kelly said. “In particular, out-of-the-pocket throws, where he kept his posture up,. He clearly has built some of the things that he was concerned about last year, where it got to him mentally.”

The mixing in of pressures, the simulating for the Michigan defense, the ratcheting up of intensity, Kelly figures, will kick off around practice No. 6. That’s the first one that will be held back on the ND campus and the first staged in full pads.

“I think I’ve matured,” said Wimbush, who wasn’t perfect in execution but exuded confidence both in his on-field performance and at the podium. “Having a year under your belt helps you immensely.”

From a purely mechanics standpoint, cleaning up poor footwork, Wimbush said, was the most significant physical adjustment. Talking to predecessor DeShone Kizer, now a second-year pro, on a regular basis remains part of the mental elixir.

“It’s really valuable to have a guy who you played with for two years and who’s been traded and who’s gone through a rough season and who’s now behind Aaron Rodgers, who’s one of the best of all time.

“He’s seen the best, seen the lows — everything throughout his own college experience. So I’m able to talk to him, bounce things off of him. He has been great for me as a mentor and a great friend.”

The people in Wimbush’s corner continue to grow, continue to believe the storm will be a flashpoint, not a flashback to when things started to unravel last season.

“You’re going to hear us say a lot of great things about him,’ Kelly said, “and we mean it, because he’s taken the time to work on his own weaknesses.”

QB coach Tommy Rees watches as quarterback Brandon Wimbush runs a drill during Notre Dame’s first practice of training camp, Friday at the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind.