This is the big one.
After a series of Now Or Never’s that have a big impact on the individual players and their career, but not so much the team, we get to the defining player of the 2018 season.
There isn’t a more polarizing player on the Irish roster than their signal caller Brandon Wimbush. His first season can only be defined as a roller coaster. He was a question mark post Miami of Ohio, then the cemented starter and future of the program post-Wake Forest, then a total train wreck who shouldn’t play again post-Stanford.
We’ve seen this before at quarterback under Brian Kelly, as Everett Golson in 2014 followed a similar trajectory. After leading Notre Dame to a 7-1 record and top 10 ranking (and essentially engineering a thrilling victory at defending national champion Florida State, save for some officiating shenanigans), he ended the season virtually unplayable and transferred prior to the 2015 campaign.
Thankfully, Wimbush is still with us, but questions remain as to how effective he will be with an offense that lost their two leading receivers, their top running back, and two first round offensive linemen. He was effective at putting the ball in the end zone accounting for 30 touchdowns running and throwing. He was especially surgical in the red zone, an area where prior quarterbacks had struggled. But, his play fluctuated from very good, to pedestrian, to ugly and he would seem to go from a great play to a crisis of confidence on a play to play basis. Not quite what you want from your signal caller.
The Irish offense could weather those fluctuations at times last season with their strong line and running attack. This year, the onus will be put more on the shoulders of the senior from New Jersey, and it will start immediately against Michigan. Even if the revamped offensive line plays well, the Michigan front seven is littered with guys who could be reporting to NFL camps right now. They will make Wimbush beat them. The question is, can he do it?
Reasons For Optimism
There is evidence from Wimbush that he can make a huge leap in performance from his first season as a starter to his second. As a high school junior he was a 55% passer, threw for 1,408 yards, and 16 touchdowns. As a senior he completed 72% of his passes for 3,187 yards, 37 touchdowns and four interceptions. In three playoff games he completed 60-88 passes (68%) for 854 yards and 10 touchdowns. He led his team to a state title.
He was not especially good as a junior, he was spectacular as a senior. It’s happened to him before. And there is every reason to believe he can improve, because a lot of his mistakes, which I’ll get into later, were based around indecision and tentativeness. A different mindset or a better understanding of the offense can turn those things around.
Another reason is the common sense fact that Wimbush is deadly with the ball in his hands. When he hurts the defense, he hurts them bad. Whether it’s a broken play against Boston College that goes for 60+ and a score, or a called draw that goes for 48 and a score against Wake Forest. Wimbish isn’t just a running threat, he is a home run threat. That’s something that weighs on the minds of defenders and demands a game plan to stop during the week.
Looking at the likely top receiving options this season also yields positive news for the Irish passing game. The Irish lost two of their leading receivers last season in Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson, but return their two leading receivers in terms of catch rate in Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin. Which is to say, Irish quarterbacks were more accurate throwing to them than anyone else on the team with Claypool at 64% and Boykin at 52%.
Wimbush didn’t account for all of those completions, but certainly the vast majority. Wimbush mostly struggled throwing the deep ball last season, but interestingly not when throwing to Boykin, who he hit on a long touchdown against Miami of Ohio and in the spring game, beating Nick Watkins. For whatever reason, those two seem to have a chemistry together.
He’s got the tools, he’s got the physical skills, he just needs to put it together. The upside is sky high, but the downside is, well, it’s low.
Reasons For Pessimism
Wimbush gets confused. A lot. It leads to indecision, which leads to mistakes, which leads to missed opportunities and wasted possessions. Sure, he needs to clean up some of his mechanics, but often his mechanics break down because he’s sitting on his back foot because he’s hesitant to turn the ball loose. Here’s an example:
2nd and 11 against NC State, he’s got St. Brown and Claypool to the top of the field and NC State sends a blitz, with backside safety rolling to the middle. Both corners are in press, this is clearly man coverage. Wimbush clearly has St. Brown on an out route for nine yards, the safety won’t be there in time. He also sees Claypool beat his man on a go route at the top.
Wimbush sees St. Brown, but gives a little pump, hesitates, and then lets it go to Claypool running the go route. His hesitation throws off his timing, and it’s an all arm throw that comes up short, allowing the corner to catch up and not allowing Claypool to high point the ball. Wimbush can throw it to whoever he wants here, both are open. Wimbush, however is indecisive which leads to poor mechanics and a missed opportunity. Notre Dame punted a play later.
He was also unsure in the running game, which led to more missed opportunities. Again against NC State, it’s 2nd and one in plus territory with an option pitch called to the short side. Wimbush reads the defensive end, who slow plays and stays right with him, never turning his shoulders to chase pitch. Wimbush has an easy read here. If he pitches it, Adams has a clear path to five or more yards and a first down. Instead, he inexplicably keeps it and loses two yards.
Unfortunately, we also saw some bad decisions in the spring game as well. That makes one wonder how much improvement has been made in this area.
Here he’s got two receivers to the top with a tight end attached against cover 4. Kmet at tight end runs a post, with Finke in the slot running a seam route. Kmet attracts the back side safety Gilman, who turns his hips to break toward Kmet, leaving the deep middle totally unattended. Finke beats Crawford, and is running free down the seam. Wimbush, from a clean pocket, doesn’t see this and throws into triple coverage to Kmet. It didn’t work out.
Being quarterback is tough, especially in this offense where every play is a decision whether it’s reading a defensive end on a run play, whether to throw the RPO, whether to change the play, what the coverage is, etc. But, players do it, and Brandon needs to do it better. Perhaps with a full season and offseason with Chip Long, he has gotten better with the offense. Notre Dame needs him to and if he does, they can be in for a big season. If not, Ian Book and freshman Phil Jurkovec are waiting in the wings. if Wimbush finds himself on the bench this season, in all likelihood he won’t leave it.