Who is Brandon Wimbush now and what could he mean to Notre Dame on Saturday night?
SOUTH BEND — So who is Brandon Wimbush, six games and seven weeks since he has thrown his most recent pass in an actual college football game?
… Since Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly flipped the top of the Irish quarterback depth chart and then watched the demoted senior starter grow instead of atrophy.
“The quarterback that is taking reps for us is a guy you would say is of championship quality,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Wimbush Thursday after practice. “He’s 12-3 (as a starter) for a reason.”
Kelly wouldn’t say for certain that career start No. 16 — and fourth this season — would come Saturday night on Senior Night, when the No. 3 Irish (9-0) host a Florida State team (4-5) trying to avoid a bowl-less finish for the first time since 1981.
The ninth-year Irish coach insisted Thursday evening on terming incumbent No. 1 Ian Book’s status as “day to day” and “a game-time decision,” though multiple sources confirmed to the Tribune earlier in the day reports that the junior was unlikely to play against the Seminoles because of a rib/back injury.
Whoever plays quarterback — and every other position for the Irish against FSU — will be decked out in a green jersey, something Kelly agreed to after the ND players pushed the idea this week. The Rudy-esque video announcement was made Thursday night via Twitter.
Book, the nation’s leader in completion percentage (.745) and sixth in pass-efficiency (170.0), suffered his injury in the first quarter of a 31-21 victory at Northwestern last Saturday night. But he played through it and finished with 399 yards in total offense and three TDs. That included a career-high 343 passing yards.
In six starts and three relief cameos this season, Book has thrown for 1,824 yards and 15 TDs, with four interceptions, and rushed for 218 yards and another four scores.
He told the media after the Northwestern game that he was fine, but that prognosis didn’t hold up for long.
“We knew obviously he was banged up during the game,” Kelly said, only acknowledging the nature of the injury was “upper body” when pressed about specifics Thursday evening. “And in subsequent follow-ups on Sunday (we knew) that we were going to have to keep an eye on him during the week.”
In reading between Kelly’s sometimes-evasive lines Thursday, Book did little more than keep an eye on practice, rather than actively participating in it.
If Book can’t pull a “Drue Tranquill” — a medical miracle — Wimbush elevates to No. 1 for the first time since a 22-17 survival of Vanderbilt in game 3 on Sept. 15, and high-pedigreed freshman Phil Jurkovec becomes the No. 2 option.
Wimbush mopped up in ND’s 45-23 win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 6 but did not attempt a pass. That’s his only game action since Kelly installed Book as the new starter for a 56-27 rout of Wake Forest on Sept. 22.
In that same game Jurkovec saw his only game action of the season to date. His fourth-quarter cameo consisted of two incomplete passes, two handoffs to fellow freshman Jahmir Smith, a QB draw for seven yards, and two kneel-downs in victory formation to end the game.
“He got a lot of work this week,” Kelly said. “If Phil has to play, we can win.
“Phil’s obviously got some learning still to do, but he can run our offense — not the entire playbook. We’re not going to put a guy out there that’s lost.
“He’s going to be able to run the offense. He can throw the football down the field. He can run some RPOs (run-pass options). He can run some screen game, option. There will be plenty for you to defend if Phil’s on the football field.”
But unless the injury bug bites again, Florida State will likely be defending Wimbush. And a more confident, more refined version, Kelly insists, than the one who is 42-of-76 passing for 589 yards and a TD with four picks this season. Wimbush has also run for 144 yards on 52 carries and a score.
“A lot of it was fine-tuning some mechanics and really being a lot more sound,” Kelly said of Wimbush’s behind-the-scenes progress. “Look, to throw the ball with accuracy, there’s a lot of carryover to so many other sports.
“You watch pitchers lose the strike zone, and they make a couple of tweaks in a bullpen session, and all of a sudden they’re throwing strikes again. I mean, he just needed to make a couple of fine-tune/mechanical things. He’s throwing the ball pretty good this week.”
The wild card is how Wimbush will run against the nation’s No. 17 rush defense.
The nine quarterbacks who have started against Florida State this season have combined for minus-9 yards on 50 carries. Syracuse’s Eric Dungey is the only one who amassed more than seven rushing yards among the starters against FSU.
He gained 33 yards on nine carries before being sidelined with an injury in the second quarter of a 30-7 Orange win on Sept. 15. His replacement, Tommy DeVito, gained nine yards on seven carries.
The only player at any position with more than 80 yards this season against FSU was NC State running back Reggie Gallaspy Jr. (106 on 21 carries) last weekend in a 47-28 Wolfpack victory.
In 2017, Wimbush rushed for 803 yards (12th among QBs in the FBS) 14 TDs (fifth among QBs) and a 5.7 average (seventh).
“You’re going to see him run the football a little bit,” Kelly said of how a Wimbush game plan might look different from one with Book running the offense, “but you don’t change a ton of what we do, other than what has (Wimbush) been successful at? You maybe add a little bit of that into what you’re doing.
“But I don’t think if you watch us play, you’d go, ‘Oh, that’s a totally different offense.’ ”
While Wimbush’s career pass-efficiency rating is a modest 119.4, nine of the 15 teams he’s started against in his career have pass-efficiency defenses ranked 45th or better. Six of the 15 Wimbush starts have come against top 25 pass-efficiency defenses, including Michigan in this year’s season opener, which ranks No. 1 currently in that category and total defense.
The highest-ranked pass-efficiency team Book has started against is Northwestern, last week, now at No. 54. The Seminoles are 64th in that category.
In that Michigan game, a 24-17 ND win, Wimbush accounted for 229 of ND’s 302 total yards. No Wolverine opponent has matched or exceeded ND’s 24 points since.
“You’ve got to look at it from his perspective,” Kelly said of Wimbush. “He’s had plenty of time to think about not being the starter and what he needs to do. And he’s worked really hard on the things that he wants to be better at.
“He’s an incredible competitor. And if he’s given the opportunity, he wants to stay the starter. He’s going to look back on all the things he’s done. If he’s given the opportunity, he’ll play really well.”
Green-out ... sort of
So Notre Dame is 1-0 all time when exhorting its fans to wear green (Michigan on Sept. 1), but what about when the team wears green?
It’s been a mixed bag.
The late ND coach Dan Devine brought green into style in the modern era of Notre Dame football, with his Irish wearing green in a 49-19 throttling of USC on Oct. 22, 1977.
The Irish wore green for the next 41 games and fashioned a 32-9-1 mark (.774) in the alternate jerseys. Since that time, the Irish are a modest 8-5 (.615) in green, 4-5 (.444) when you take out Kelly’s 4-0 record.
• Kelly said starting tight end Alizé Mack will play Saturday against FSU after missing the Northwestern game recovering from a concussion.
• Linebacker Drue Tranquill is expected to be an every-down player Saturday, per Kelly, after serving as a third-down specialist against Northwestern. Tranquill, ND’s second-leading tackler this season, had five against the Wildcats, a week after suffering a high ankle sprain against Navy.
“I was determined to play (against Northwestern),” he said earlier this week, “but I didn’t know for sure if I could until Saturday morning.”
Here's the play in the first quarter at Northwestern when Ian Book likely sustained the injury. Appears to take a knee in his side. @EHansenNDI sources described a rib and back injury. https://t.co/bTSxML1yd1pic.twitter.com/WP2P9DjL9g
— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) November 8, 2018
This was Book's reaction after the play. pic.twitter.com/UutEbCrp6D
— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) November 8, 2018