Analysis: Brandon Wimbush helping Ian Book, Notre Dame behind the scenes

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The next quarterback to take center stage at Notre Dame Stadium, technically, is a guy named Garth Brooks.

The 56-year-old country music superstar was a high school QB once upon a time at Yukon (Okla.) High School, before throwing the javelin for Oklahoma State in college.

He’ll appear in concert at a sold-out Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night, presumably without any coaching from Irish coach Brian Kelly.

The quarterback Kelly does coach these days, junior Ian Book, woke up Sunday morning as the nation’s leader in passing completion percentage (.752), on pace to break Jimmy Clausen’s single-season school record of .680, set in 2009.

After a self-proclaimed skittish first half, Book settled in to complete 81.3 percent (26-of-32) for 264 yards two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 19-14 come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. He was at 93 percent in the second half.

It was the fourth consecutive game in which Book completed 70 percent or more of his passes, a first in Notre Dame history. He stands 12th nationally in passing-efficiency (167.9), which is also on a single-season, school-record pace.

Behind the scenes, the quarterback Book replaced as a starter Sept. 22 at Wake Forest has been an asset to Book, according to Kelly.

“I’m really pleased,” Kelly said of senior Brandon Wimbush. “You know, he is right next to (Book) every time he comes off the field. He’s there for him, talking to him, supporting him. So he’s getting that in the game situation, which is outstanding.

“And during the week in practice, he’s working on his craft. He’s working to be more efficient. Again, I just think that the way he’s gone to work every day has helped our football team in so many ways in terms of attitude, morale. It’s a positive situation for us.”

The Irish (7-0) moved up a spot in both the AP and coaches poll, to No. 4, following a Saturday in which four top 10 teams lost.

Notre Dame has a bye week this week, which coincides with fall break for all ND students.

Good byes

First up for Notre Dame coming out of its bye week is an Oct. 27 date with Navy (2-4) in San Diego at 8 p.m. EDT. Former Irish All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor will handle the game analysis on the CBS national telecast.

As for how Kelly will handle the actual bye week, he’s had a pretty successful formula up until now, both at Notre Dame and in the years before he arrived there.

The Irish are 9-1 under Kelly in games immediately following a bye week, and he’s 20-2 in his career in such games.

Three of the nine ND wins came against ranked teams — 28-3 over No. 15 Utah in 2010, in Tommy Rees’ first career start; 24-20 at No. 21 Temple in 2015; and 49-14 over No. 11 USC last season.

“Probably the mental piece,” Kelly said of the most important facet of this particular bye week. “I think physically we’re in a pretty good place. You can always use a few days there.

“But we also want to be able to critically look at the things that we need to get better at moving forward, as well. There are some things that we need to talk about here over the next few days as we prepare for Navy.”

The heavy prep for the Midshipmen and their triple-option offense actually started Sunday.

“They’ve kind of morphed over the last year or so in terms of what they’re doing, using multiple quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “Even this year, working out of the shotgun.

“A lot of this is about staying up to date with the kind of changes that they’re making from an offensive standpoint. This week we met a couple of times with the group that’s going to be the demonstration squad and had them watch film.

“So (Sunday) we’ll actually do a walk-through with the group on some of the new formations and new sets that they’re using out of shotgun. We’ll go out (Monday), and the first thing that we’ll do is we’ll install Navy’s base offense.”

The Irish players will be free to travel home after Tuesday’s practice and won’t have to report back until next Sunday. The coaching staff will take two days late in the week to hit the road to recruit and evaluate.

In between, it’s about self-scouting and getting better over the final five games.

“There’s a number of things that we’ll talk about internally about the next challenges in front of us,” Kelly said, “but I think more importantly, our football team is excited about the upcoming weeks in front of them. Just keep them channeled, stay one day at a time.”

Personnel matters

Kelly said Sunday that starting cornerback Troy Pride Jr. and third-leading rusher Jafar Armstrong remain on track to resume game action Oct. 27 against Navy.

Pride, in fact, is expected to practice on Monday. He was held out of Saturday’s win over Pitt after spraining his ankle the weekend before at Virginia Tech. Armstrong has missed the past three games with a knee infection.

Pride’s return means the Irish won’t have to lean so heavily on freshman TaRiq Bracy, who had seven tackles Saturday after replacing junior Donte Vaughn, who started in place of the injured Pride.

“The moment is not too big for him,” Kelly said of the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Bracy. “He’s a pretty level-headed young man. He’s got some work to do. He recognized some things a little bit quicker. But I think there’s a big confidence when the ball goes down the field. We like his skill set.”

• A second kickoff returned 99 yards for a touchdown this season has Kelly contemplating a change — at kicker.

“Well, it’s really kicking the football,” Kelly said of what he believes primarily allowed Maurice Ffrench Saturday and Michigan’s Ambry Thomas in week 1 to go the distance against the Irish. “Our placement has been not where it needs to be.

“We’re kicking it down the middle of the field. We certainly have to be better in our lane distribution and tackling, but it starts with consistency in kicking.

“We’re covering too many plays. We covered seven kickoffs against Virginia Tech. That’s crazy. We’re capable of kicking it out of the end zone, and we’re just not doing it on a consistent basis.”

Sophomore Jonathan Doerer had kicked off 41 times this season, with 20 touchbacks (and two kicked out of bounds). His 48.7 percent touchback rate is pretty much in line with the national average (.483).

Senior place-kicker Justin Yoon has kicked off four times, three of which have been touchbacks (.750 in a small sample size).

Kelly said the staff will consider over the bye week whether to give Yoon both duties.

Last season, the two were fairly even in touchback rate. Yoon was 15-for-51 (.288), and Doerer was 9-of-32 (.281). In 2016, Yoon was 24-of-55 (.436) and John Chereson was 4-of-16 (.250).

Punter Tyler Newsome kicked off in 2015, and 21 of his 64 kickoffs were touchbacks (32.8 percent).

Hold everything

On a typical week Kelly sends fewer than five clips to the ACC offices (or other officiating conference when applicable) after a game of what he believes were uncalled holding infractions on the opposition. After the Pitt game, he sent in eight.

The revelation came not out of an unprompted rant about officiating, but in an answer to a question about how he coaches his defensive players to deal with uncalled holding penalties.

“We just really talk about continuing your effort,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. and then we try to educate the league as much as possible.

“A lot of times we’re getting, ‘That should have been called.’ Other times it’s a gray-area call. You know, from our end, we think that there’s calls out there that maybe aren’t going our way. But we’re just going to keep playing and not complain about it.”

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush, left, talks with teammate Ian Book during ND’s 45-23 win over Virginia Tech, Oct. 6 in Blacksburg, Va.
Notre Dame freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy brings down Pittsburgh’s Darrin Hall (22) during ND’s 19-14 win, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.