Going inside the dynamic of a two-QB system at Notre Dame — or at least the suggestion of one

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

He wonders sometimes what Ian Book is thinking on game day, and deep down has a pretty good idea.

Evan Sharpley was part of a two-quarterback system at Notre Dame 11 seasons ago, though with a very different dynamic than the one current Irish head coach Brian Kelly has roughly outlined but has barely put into practice two games in.

The eighth-ranked Irish (2-0) host Vanderbilt (2-0) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV), with senior Brandon Wimbush again expected to start at quarterback and Book again treading in gray area.

Kelly has suggested Book’s role would entail giving Wimbush a break if/when the starter wore down running the ball in a stretch of plays. He also said Book had a package of plays that might warrant him getting on the field on short yardage and/or in the red zone.

So far that has translated into three snaps total over two games. All handoffs to running back Jafar Armstrong. All touchdowns. One of those three appearances, though, was brought on by Wimbush being poked in the eye.

“What I’ve kind of said with a two-quarterback system is it works until it doesn’t,” said Sharpley, who co-hosts a pregame show on WSBT radio and serves as an analyst on the Inside Notre Dame Football TV show through Fighting Irish Media.

“As long as you’re winning, there are probably not going to be any issues. I’m not saying there’ll be a huge crack or huge issues if there are losses, but if there are losses, it will kind of exacerbate any comments the No. 2 guy makes as far as who he thinks should be on the field.”

Notre Dame won and won a lot during Sharpley’s first two seasons at ND, with him serving as a distinct and distant No. 2 to starter Brady Quinn. He actually ended up redshirting in 2005, and then ended up attempting as many passes in ’06 as All-America wide receiver Jeff Samardzija (2), tied for second-most that season on the team.

But in 2007 the Irish won only three games and lost a school-record nine times. Then-head coach Charlie Weis began the season with Demetrius Jones as his starting QB. He was benched during his debut and promptly transferred to … Cincinnati to play quarterback for Brian Kelly.

Who eventually converted Jones into a linebacker.

Weis, meanwhile, split time between freshman Jimmy Clausen and Sharpley, then a junior. But it really wasn’t a traditional two-quarterback system in the sense Sharpley was always No. 2 in Weis’ mind, even when he started him.

Those two starts that were allotted to Sharpley came when Clausen was either injured or Weis was trying to prevent a potential injury to his prodigy.

“I was the upperclassman at the time,” Sharpley said. “So as far as experience, understanding our offensive concepts, I would say I was probably a level above at that point.

“I did my best to help out the team, but at the same time what’s in the back of your mind is, ‘Hey let’s give me an opportunity.’ I don’t know what Ian and Brandon’s relationship is, but I think they communicate pretty well. That goes into it, too — the two personalities of the two guys involved.

“Both guys have to buy in. You can’t just have one. If one guy hasn’t bought in and the other guy has, it could potentially cause some rifts within the team structure. and what you’re buying into is you could get yanked at any time or you might not play at all.”

In 2017, Book as a redshirt freshman, attempted 75 passes. The only ND quarterbacks in the 2000s, who finished a particular season second in pass attempts, and with more than Book’s 75 were his QBs coach, Tommy Rees, in 2010 (164) and Sharpley in 2007 (140).

Rees was not part of a two-QB arrangement in 2010. Dayne Crist suffered a season-ending knee injury in game nine, and the true freshman took over.

In the season Rees actually did tag-team with starter Everett Golson (2012), Rees attempted a modest number of 59 passes. The year included a complete game against BYU when Golson was injured.

Interestingly, the top three teams in this week’s AP poll all have QB tag teams of some sort:

Sophomore Tua Tagovailoa (35 pass attempts) and junior Jalen Hurts (18) at No. 1 Alabama; senior Kelly Bryant (34) and freshman Trevor Lawrence (23) at No. 2 Clemson; and sophomore Jake Fromm (34) and freshman Justin Fields (8) at No. 3 Georgia.

“It seems to be working at those top-tier programs,” Sharpley said, “but my understanding in all three of those cases is there are some very specific roles that each player has. and with what’s happening at Notre Dame, it almost feels like it could change game to game.

“That would be the hardest part for me: ‘What is my role on a game-to-game basis? How do I need to prepare weekly?’ I think if it’s communicated effectively and each guy is able to embrace it, it makes it a lot easier.”

Wimbush has completed 54.7 percent of his passes this season (29-of-53) for 467 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions. That’s two fewer picks than he had all of last season. His 119.86 pass-efficiency rating stands at 87th nationally.

However, he is ahead of, notably, LSU’s Joe Burrow (91), Penn State’s Trace McSorley (92), USC’s JT Daniels (97), Arizona’s Khalil Tate (104th), Northwestern Clayton Thorson (109th) and Ball State counterpart Riley Neal (103rd).

Wimbush has rushed for a net of 52 yards on 30 carries, including sacks. That’s 1.7 yards per carry. Last season his average was 5.7.

“I think part of Brandon’s struggles has been the offensive line with some new faces,” Sharpley said. “Now maybe Brandon isn’t getting them in the right protections. But the coaching staff seems to make such a point of making him more of a pocket passer, and I don’t know why.

“His success last year was predicated on running the football, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that, moving forward. Stick with what works. He’s that dynamic of a runner.”

And as far as Book if a larger role never materializes?

“You have to be careful how you handle your frustrations,” Sharpley said. “You’ve got buddies on the team and guys who were in your recruiting class. But talk with your family and high school coach and try your best to keep that balancing act from leaning too far toward your frustration.

“You can only have one guy out on the field, and both guys want to be that guy. But your goal is to win football games. You have to look at it like that.”

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) lines at quarterback against Michigan on Sept. 1, one of three snaps he has taken this season for the Irish.