Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Young QBs: Feet To The Fire

There are many factors that determine the success of a first-time starting QB, several of which are beyond a young signalcaller’s control.

When Notre Dame opens its 2017 season at home against Temple and Georgia, and on the road versus Michigan State and Boston College, its quarterback will be making his first career starts and playing the most meaningful downs of his life with his surroundings swirling.

It’s expected to be red-shirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush at the controls with his two career games and five passes in a mop-up role against Massachusetts in 2015.

If it’s not Wimbush, for one reason or another, it will be red-shirt freshman Ian Book or true freshman Avery Davis.

Long is the list of young quarterbacks – at Notre Dame and other places – who have been overwhelmed by the circumstances with his head swimming in the playbook while taking on a level of athlete on defense he’s never experienced before in a game situation.

A dozen or so Irish quarterbacks have been in that situation since sophomore Rick Mirer took over for Tony Rice in 1990. Of course, until Brady Quinn as a freshman in 2003 under head coach Tyrone Willingham, those young quarterbacks had the security of a strong ground game, or at least a run-first attack.

First-time starting quarterbacks under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie (1997-2001) threw the football relatively infrequently compared to the 350-to-425 times per season under Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly.

Holtz was all about controlling the line of scrimmage via the running game. In the last seven years of the Holtz regime (1990-96), the Irish never finished lower than 20th in the nation in rushing yards per game, including 8th or better in five of those seven seasons.

Mirer never threw more than 234 times in his three seasons as the Irish starter. As a senior in ’92, he averaged a career-high 21 pass attempts per game.

During Notre Dame’s run at the national title in ’93, Kevin McDougal averaged 14.4 pass attempts per game.

Ron Powlus represented an uptick in the passing game from 1994-97, although his lack of mobility and modest touchdown-to-interception ratio – coupled with Notre Dame’s still strong rushing attack – saw him top out at 21 passes per game.

It wasn’t until Powlus’ fifth year – under Davie in ’97 – that he threw 298 passes, or an average of 23 per game.

A more extensive Notre Dame passing game – excluding periodic exceptions such as Joe Theismann in 1970 (268 pass attempts), Joe Montana in 1978 (260) and even Steve Beuerlein in Holtz’s first year in 1986 (259) – was launched with Jarious Jackson in 1999.

Jackson became the first Irish quarterback to attempt as many as 300 passes (316) in a season, although it would be a blip on the radar with Matt LoVecchio and Carlyle Holiday following him.

Brady Quinn threw 332 and 353 times in 2003-04 under Willingham, and then began the launch brigade under Weis when he attempted 450 and 467 passes in 2005-06.

Since that 2005 season, the Irish have had a quarterback throw more than 400 passes in a season seven out of 12 times.

Theoretically, young quarterbacks under Holtz and Davie should have been more efficient than those in the Willingham-Weis-Brian Kelly eras based upon the heavier emphasis on the running game and fewer opportunities to make mistakes through the air.

But that wasn’t always the case.

• Mirer: In his first full-time season as a starter, he threw eight touchdown passes and six interceptions while completing 55.0 percent of his passes.

• Powlus: He completed just 53.6 percent of his passes as a red-shirt freshman in ’94, although his touchdown-to-interception ratio was a sound 19-to-9.

• Jackson: Although he completed 58.2 percent of his passes for a then school-record 2,753 yards in his second year as a starter in ’99, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was a poor 17-to-14.

Before Quinn became the most productive quarterback in Notre Dame history in 2005-06 – he threw for 7,345 yards, 69 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions his last two years in the program – he completed 47.3 percent of his passes with a 9-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a freshman.

Even Jimmy Clausen, who closed his Notre Dame career with 3,722 yards, a 68.0 completion percentage and 28 touchdown passes to four interceptions in 2009, struggled out of the gate.

His rookie season in ’07 included a mere seven touchdown passes and six interceptions, although he might have played behind the most porous Irish offensive line in Notre Dame history.

As a freshman and sophomore under Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees’ touchdown-to-interception ratio was an unsatisfactory 32-to-22. It improved his senior season in ’14 when he threw a career-high 27 touchdowns. But his 13 interceptions (one per 31.8 passes) halted drives.

Dayne Crist completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for more than 2,000 yards with 15 TD passes and seven interceptions when his season came to an abrupt halt due to injury in the ninth game of the 2010 season.

With Everett Golson, the more he threw, the more his protection of the football went south. As a red-shirt freshman in ’12, he threw an interception every 53 passes. As his attempts shot up to 427 in ’14, he threw an interception every 30.5 passes, and then there were the eight fumbles lost.

DeShone Kizer was one of the exceptions to the rule as a red-shirt freshman in 2015. He completed 63 percent of his 335 passes with a 21-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio – plus game-winning drive after game-winning drive.

Kizer’s completion percentage dropped with a young receiving corps in ’16, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio improved to 26-to-9. The difference? An absence of game-winning touchdown drives.

Of course, there are a multitude of factors that determine the success or failure of a quarterback. A poor offensive line that allows sacks and doesn’t open holes for the running game sabotages quarterbacks. So does an offensive game plan that puts too much of the burden on the quarterback.

A young receiving corps – which impacted Kizer’s final season with the Irish – is a hidden chink in the armor to the masses.

A poor defense forces a greater emphasis on an offense’s passing game, whether the quarterback is ready for that or not.

Ultimately, Wimbush will be measured by Notre Dame’s record in ’17.

In Mirer’s first year as a starter (1990), the Irish went 9-3. In Powlus’ first season (1994), Notre Dame was 6-5-1. In Jackson’s second season (1999) – with the No. 78 scoring defense – the Irish were 5-7.

Quinn’s first season (2003) – with Notre Dame’s No. 62 scoring defense -- was 5-7. Clausen’s first season (2007) – with the No. 72 scoring defense -- was 3-9.

Teams led by Rees never lost fewer than four times. Golson – with Rees’ assistance – helped lead the Irish to the national title game in 2012. Kizer was at the controls of nine of 10 victories in 2015.

There’s only so much a young starting quarterback can control. Wimbush should benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Chip Long, who employs two and three tight ends and professes a commitment to the running game when the offensive line dictates.

With a veteran offensive line returning for the Irish in ’17 – plus those multiple tight end sets – Wimbush should haven’t to average 30 pass attempts per game, particularly if defensive coordinator Mike Elko can work his magic as he did at Bowling Green and Wake Forest.

It’s never easy for a young quarterback, which is the only kind of quarterback the Irish will have in 2017.


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