DeShone Kizer’s decision to enter the NFL draft after just three years at Notre Dame and two seasons as the Irish starter precipitates the ascension of red-shirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush to the top of the depth chart.
Wimbush, who was forced into brief action as a freshman in 2015 following the season-ending injury to Malik Zaire, preserved a year in 2016. He’ll enter the 2017 season with three years of eligibility.
Red-shirt freshman Ian Book and red-shirt junior Montgomery VanGorder – a former walk-on – are the only other scholarship quarterbacks on the spring roster. Freshman Avery Davis will join the group in August.
Wimbush is a sturdy (6-foot-1, 225-pound), athletic quarterback with a live arm. He offers a strong running/read-option threat to the position and the ability to get the football downfield to the Irish wideouts with a free-and-easy, whip-like throwing motion. By all accounts, he’s been well received by his teammates and has begun the process mentally and physically of becoming “the man” at the position for the Irish.
First-time starting quarterbacks – Kizer notwithstanding – generally struggle protecting the football out of the gate. Kizer’s 21-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio as an untested red-shirt freshman in 2015 is not the norm.
In the 2015 Pittsburgh game – one of two in which Wimbush participated – he fumbled in fourth-quarter mop-up duty, which was returned 32 yards for a touchdown. He completed 3-of-5 passes for 17 yards with a long of nine versus UMass. He rushed seven times for 96 yards, including an explosive 58-yard third-quarter touchdown run against the Minutemen.
Ian Book arrived from El Dorado Hills, Calif. last fall as an undersized (5-foot-11½) three-star prospect with upside as a runner, elusiveness in the pocket and a good feel for finding receivers downfield with accuracy. He’s not known for having a big arm, but he showed a good feel for the game on the prep level and figures to offer a competent alternative to Wimbush, albeit with even less experience and time in the program.
Temple, a 10-victory program each of the past two seasons, Georgia, at defensive-sound Boston College and at Michigan State will be a challenging September for the inexperienced Wimbush. Not only must he adapt to Brian Kelly’s system after two years of minor exposure, but he’ll also have to master the systematic nuances added by first-year offensive coordinator Chip Long.
It’s rare that a first-time starter at quarterback on this level goes through a growth spurt without some setbacks/mistakes. In addition to mastering the offense and the expectations that come with it, he’ll also have to protect the football during a period of system overload.
Fortunately, he’ll have a veteran offensive line in front of him, a small but talented corps of running backs, and a couple of receivers who excelled throughout the 2016 season.
A 3-1 start with two road games and a retooling defense would be considered a relative success for a first-time leader of the offense. The law of averages suggests he’ll need help early with the heavy lifting.