Analysis: Latest tinkering with Brandon Wimbush's role has the right intent behind it

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

Eight miles from where Brandon Wimbush grew up in Teaneck, N.J. — as an aspiring Major League baseball player, no less — he may have found a new home in a sense.

A football home, that is. In Yankee Stadium of all places.

A backfield with Wimbush and the quarterback who usurped him on the depth chart in September, junior Ian Book, got sprinkled in during No. 3 Notre Dame’s 36-3 drubbing of Syracuse on Saturday.

Irish coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Sunday that the two-QB formation, with Wimbush lined up as a running back, wasn’t meant to be either a gimmick or a one-time thing,

“Well, we think certainly his ability to run with the football, but we’d like it to be more than that,” Kelly said of the expanding role that still keeps the 6-foot-2, 222-pound senior as the team’s No. 2 QB option.

“Somebody that can catch the football, that has the ability to impact the offense from more than just that element. So clearly, as you can see, we’re trying to integrate him into the offense more than just a play here or there.

“And it continues to unfold. He’ll be part of what we do again this week, and as we feel more comfortable and he feels more comfortable, I think you’ll start to see a little bit more of him.”

Wimbush’s stat line — 44 rushing yards and an incomplete pass — actually came Saturday during a late stretch when he relieved Book rather than when he was Book’s cohort.

The logistics of trying to create that niche role for him could prove to be challenging in terms of whose game and practice reps take the hit to make it all happen. Still, it seems like a worthy experiment if Wimbush continues to also provide an ample safety net at QB.

Whether the role expansion gains traction in terms of significantly impacting the nation’s No. 28 team in total offense isn’t quite as compelling or meaningful as the message behind it.

That is, that the Irish (11-0), one win away from a probable berth in the fifth-ever College Football Playoff, are exploring ways to improve instead of trying to figure out how to survive arch-rival USC (5-6), Saturday at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

Mindset matters.

“Burying your head in the sand and avoiding all of it and not understanding what’s going on is not the way we’ve been doing it all year,” Kelly said of the big-picture implications that are part of this year’s meeting.

“We’ll continue to make sure they (the ND players) are aware of the situation, and then we’ll go back to work the way we have each and every week.”

From an individual standpoint, Wimbush never stopped working, or trying to improve — himself or Book. And the twist on getting a bit unconventional with his role was actually Wimbush’s idea.

An added bonus to it all was that Wimbush’s father, Shawn, got to see him take some snaps Saturday in the Bronx after having to miss his son’s start in place of an injured Book the previous weekend on Senior Night against Florida State.

Shawn was unable to make that trip because of an illness and had just been released from the hospital before the FSU game.

Drawing the line

The urgency for Notre Dame’s offensive line to continue to evolve is best illustrated by taking a peek at ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest positional prospect rankings (released Tuesday).

Three of the top 10 defensive end prospects for the 2019 draft play for one of the other three teams in the most recently projected College Football Playoff field — Alabama, Clemson and/or Michigan.

Four of the top 10 interior line prospects do as well. So do three of the top 10 inside linebacker prospects and three of the top 10 outside linebacker prospects.

The biggest issue Kelly had with his offensive line against sack-happy Syracuse on Saturday was penalties. The Irish were flagged four times for illegal procedure, with sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey getting some bench time after his third violation in the Syracuse game.

Beyond that, the ND coach saw production and potential.

The Irish rushed for 4.8 yards a carry, slightly above their season average (4.61). And ND yielded a modest four yards in sack yardage (on two sacks), none of which came from the standout bookend pass rushers Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman.

“Coleman and Robinson are as talented a group that we’ve seen all year,” Kelly said. “We had one coverage sack that Ian had to take, and then they (the ND line) really gave up one sack the whole game against a very, very talented defensive end tandem. Very good there.

“Obviously, want to run the ball a little bit more effectively, but I thought at times when we needed to run the football, we did some good things. Pretty good balance, and they continue to rise to a challenge each and every week. We like where we are.”

Poll paradox

The College Football Playoff committee’s next set of weekly rankings, to be released Tuesday night, won’t necessarily mimic the Associated Press poll unveiled Sunday.

But if they do match up similarly, it drives home just how quickly and dramatically a team’s strength of schedule can shift, particularly when drawing one of the important lines in that regard, top 25 competition.

Notre Dame took continual perceptual hits for teams that it beat, such as Stanford and Virginia Tech, sliding out of the top 25 after the Irish played them.

Yet all of a sudden on Sunday, the Irish were one of five teams with the most top 25 opponents in their rear-view mirror, with four. The other teams are LSU, Florida, Mississippi State and Pitt.

Taking it a step further, Notre Dame is 4-0 against the new top 25. No other team in the AP poll has more than two wins against ranked teams. Sixteen of the 25, including No. 2-ranked Clemson, have one or zero such wins.

Safety dance

In the summer of 2017, then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko lamented the difference in how he and predecessor Brian VanGorder evaluated the safety position in recruiting, but he took solace in his first impression that incoming Navy transfer Alohi Gilman was the best prospect at that position on the roster.

On Sunday, Gilman was named the Walter Camp Foundation national Defensive Player of the Week after picking off two passes and making eight tackles in the rout of Syracuse at Yankee Stadium.

A day earlier, he was awarded the game ball for that effort from Kelly, becoming the 11th different Irish player in 11 games to be so honored.

“I think it is relevant to the fact that what we have been talking about with this football team is that we have a number of individuals that compete at a high level and contribute at a high level from week to week,” Kelly said.

“And so that’s really what this team has been about. It’s not been one guy. And I think (that) kind of proves the fact that that’s the kind of football team we’ve put together.”

How that looks in the big picture, under current coordinator Clark Lea, is that Notre Dame moved up four spots Sunday to No. 2 in the FBS in pass-efficiency defense (96.20), behind only Michigan.

The Irish are 20th in total defense (321.4), and are sixth in yards per play allowed (4.4), just ahead of Alabama. In fact, all four of the projected playoff teams are ranked in the top seven in that statistical category.

Gilman’s safety sidekick, by the way, junior Jalen Elliott, corralled his fourth interception of the season on Saturday. He’s now tied for 16th nationally in interceptions per game.

Heckling Helton

Apparently UC Davis transfer Joshua Kelley’s trampling of the USC defense Saturday, to the tune of 289 rushing yards in a 34-27 upset win for Kelley and UCLA, wasn’t the worst thing that happened to embattled Trojan head coach Clay Helton.

Yahoo’s Pete Thamel noted a group of Bruins fans “sounding drunk” started chants of “Keep Clay Helton.”

Thamel also pointed out that if USC (5-6) doesn’t keep Helton, they’ll have to pay him for the years athletic director Lynn Swann added to his contract (now through 2023) earlier this year.

USC’s loss to the crosstown Bruins (3-8) was its first, according to ESPN Stats & Info, to a team with at least eight losses since falling to a 1-8 Notre Dame team in 1960.

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) high-fives fans as he exits through a dugout following Notre Dame’s 36-3 win over Syracuse, Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York.
Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates an interception with teammate Jalen Elliott (21) against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in New York. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) vs. USC (5-6)

WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m. (EST)

WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 9 1/2