Can Brandon Wimbush Lead Notre Dame to the Playoffs?

The quarterback position may be the most scrutinized position in all of sports – especially at a place like Notre Dame. Last year, Brandon Wimbush showed sparks of greatness on the ground, but lacked the accuracy of an elite quarterback. In his second year as starter, Wimbush will need to show tremendous improvements to propel the Irish into the playoffs.

Last season, Wimbush was benched multiple times in favor of Ian Book. Book had his own struggles at times but proved to be slightly more accurate in the passing game (61.3%). Book’s 2017 season was punctuated by an epic comeback in the Citrus Bowl over LSU, where he went 14 of 19 through the air.

As for star true freshman Phil Jurkovec, he hasn’t been on campus long enough and lacks the experience to start against the Michigan Wolverines. However, with the new red-shirt rule allowing freshmen to participate in 4 games, I’d expect to see him on the field at some point.

A Look Back at 2017

Brandon Wimbush was undoubtedly one of the best mobile quarterbacks in the country last season. He rushed 141 times for 803 yards, which was good enough for 5.7 yards per carry. In addition, Wimbush tallied 14 touchdowns on the ground, the main reason there are high hopes for the upcoming season.

However, there were many struggles in the passing game. He went 136 of 275 attempts, for a 49.5% completion percentage while totaling 1,870 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions through the air. During some of the biggest games of the 2017 season though, he struggled as a passer. He went 20 of 40 against Georgia, 14 of 20 against Michigan State, 10 of 21 at Miami, and 11 for 28 against Stanford.

Although this was better than some quarterbacks that matched up against those opponents, it wasn’t enough to get the win in three out of four games. To fully get an idea of where he needs to be, it’s important to see how Brandon stacks up against other quarterbacks.

Making Some Comparisons

Joe Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of Notre Dame, only had a completion percentage of 52%. A percentage that was good enough to win a national championship. But the game has changed drastically since his time.

Notre Dame should strive to be in the playoffs every season. To do so, they will need spectacular quarterback play this season. Although the supporting casts and circumstances are different, I think it is reasonable to look at the numbers of the four starting quarterbacks in last year’s playoffs.

  • Jake Fromm (Georgia): 181 of 291 passing attempts, 62.2%, 24 TDs 7 Ints
  • Kelly Bryant (Clemson): 262 of 398 passing attempts. 65.8 %, 13 TDs, 8 Ints
  • Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma): 285 for 404 passing attempts, 70.5 % completion, 43 TDs, 6 Ints
  • Jalen Hurts (Alabama): 154 for 254 passing attempts, 60.6%, 17 TDs , 1 Int

Brandon Wimbush has the capability to lead the Irish to the playoffs, but to do so, his completion percentage unquestionably needs to be in the 60/65% completion range.

Assessing the Supporting Cast

Notre Dame has the potential to have their best defense since the 2012 season. Last year, the defense made tremendous progress, and I believe the Irish defense has the capability to become elite once again this year. New Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator, Clark Lea, returns almost the entire starting defense from last season as he attempts to continue the success of his mentor Mike Elko.

On the offensive side of the ball it all starts with the offensive line. It’s no secret that the Irish lost Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, who were the 6th and 9th overall picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. The offensive line, however, will still be a strength. Notre Dame returns starters Tommy Kraemer, Alex Bars, and Sam Mustipher along with two other future stars, Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey (who saw extensive action as a true freshman in 2017).

The biggest concern for 2018 are at the skill positions. Wimbush’s three favorite targets St. Brown, Durham Smythe, and Kevin Stepherson are no longer at Notre Dame. Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin, Alize Mack, and Michael Young will have a lot put on their shoulders this fall.

At the running back position, the Irish lost Josh Adams, Deon McIntosh, CJ Holmes, and one time commit Markese Stepp. A huge load will most likely be put on Tony Jones this fall, as the premiere running back. The enigmatic Dexter Williams, Jafar Armstrong, and possibly Avery Davis will all play roles in some capacity as well.

Can Wimbush do it?

Like many division 1 quarterbacks this summer, Brandon Wimbush has been putting in the work this offseason to become a better passer. Most recently he went 19 for 33, with 341 yards in the Blue Gold Game. Even though it was the Spring Game, he showed signs of improvement.

Without a doubt, the biggest key to Notre Dame’s playoff chances are Wimbush’s development. Just seven months ago he was benched in favor of Ian Book. Can he become an elite “passing” quarterback less than nine months removed a nationally televised benching? Irish fans will find out shortly.

I believe that Wimbush can lead the Irish to the playoffs but the major key for the entire 2018 season is the first game against Michigan. The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, and it is vital for Wimbush to get off to a fast start. If he struggles early, Kelly may be forced to put Ian Book into the game.

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  1. I know sometimes the message comes from repetition. We keep reading that Brandon Wimbush showed improvement in the Spring game. But did he really.

    Now being at the game gives a better view in many cases than does video. The guy I saw at the Spring Game to often threw into double coverages, close interceptions, stared down his receivers and generally looked nervous.

    I want to be wrong and like the guy, because he seems like a good person, but throwing game did not look like an improvement from my seat. Not to pile on here, but Wimbush did not seem to have much sparkle in the run game either (the when to keep the ball or hand off kind of decisions).

    And perhaps that’s the point, I’m not sure he’s comfortable making quick decisions in the heat of the game. You see the results in both the run and pass game.

    1. Johnny,

      I was at the game. He made some really nice throws but also forced some but that is the nature of the spring game. Without really being able to tuck it and run and being touched is a sack, he definitely just tried to make throws he shouldn’t have when he was being rushed. You know in the real game he would have scrambled and probably run with it instead. Bottom line, we can’t judge him on a spring game regardless.

  2. So many questions this year from the O-LINE , RB , WRS AND QB !! Gonna take an outstanding team effort to get this offense going this year! But it all begins and ends with WIMBUSHES ability to improve on last years issues ( footwork , accuracy , and seeing all options in the pocket ) and be the leader of this team! BGC you are right we will find out EARLY!! GO IRISH!!!

    1. We all agree Wimbush needs to improve–and get to that 60% passing stat—like the QB’s on the 4 teams mentioned earlier. That being Alabama , Clemson , Georgia , Oklahoma. But let’s be real , with the exception of Oklahoma—Alabama , Clemson and Georgia got to where they did because of having the best defenses in the college ranks. Sure , we hope Wimbush is better —but is he the sole individual –where the season “rest on his shoulders” starting with Michigan ? Michigan D will be good –as hopefully the Irish D on 9/1. It might come down to that–who can make the stops. In this type of game –all Irish need from Wimbush is some good drives and put 21 on the board. He’s not going to be “a gun slinger” in this game and if one is looking for a 60% passing stat , it probably won’t be this game. Just beat Michigan with a few drives —and Irish D will to the rest.

      1. Southside, In this offense we should never really need a gunslinger, like so many of them today. We need a surgeon…like Brandon was against MSU. But really, even at 60%, with 25 passes per game, this offense works great IMO.

        BGC ’77 ’82

      2. I don’t know why he would not hit 60% in this game. I think he will. And if the play calling is right while he’s doing it, Michigan will have its hands full…anyone would, and some of them did. Michigan has great defensive talent this year. But they almost always did when they played us many times before. And let me say this: MSU has a damn good defense too…though if you go by who gets the press outside of the State of Michigan, you’d never know it.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  3. Chris J,
    The new receiving unit will be catching just about anything they can touch with two hands…which as you pointed out, did NOT always happen last year. Brandon will not be seeing three or four drops per game, like he did last year in too many games. Far from it. The 2018 receiving crew will be HUNGRY for the ball; greedy for it. I think we’ll see one of the better sets of receivers out there we’ve put on the field since LOU left…up there with the Samardzija crew. (Remember, you heard it here first!)

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Bruce,

      I agree with you that I think this group of receivers is going to reduce the amount of drops pretty dramatically from last season. Hopefully that includes Mack but we’ll see.

      But wow, to say you think this crew will be better than the Shark, Mo Stovall, Rhema McKnight, Matt Shelton, Anthony Fasano, etc….not sure man. That was a sick group of receivers but time will tell. I hope you’re right!!

      1. Chris J It was the Stoval/ Szmardiza crew I was thinking you’d have to go back to find one entire crew as good. I did not say they were better. They are just about as tall, that’s for sure. And Mack has had some good games…he just needs to have more. And blocking is important too in this offense…by TE’s and downfield. And you know some freshmen will play with this new NCAA rule. So what ND group, as a whole, from these guys back to Stoval et al, would be better than either of these two units?

        BGC ’77 ’82

      2. Bruce,

        I think the group I mentioned is the best receiving corp that I’ve seen for sure. The only other ones that might stack up are those from Clausen’s last year with Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Duval Kamara, Tyler Eifert, and Kyle Rudolph. But this year’s group will be really good if they can find one of these incoming freshmen burners who can take Stepherson’s place. If we had him around still, this group would be outstanding. Stepherson was ND’s next great receiver and his dismissal definitely hurt bad. You just don’t typically get the combination of speed, hands, and a great route runner like Stepherson.

  4. I’m a big Wimbush backer. Last year was his first ever starting and ND was basically a playoff contender throughout the majority of the season. A lot of this had to do with our strong running game but Wimbush’s play helped the team quite a bit too. He’s the best mobile QB I’ve seen come through ND in a while and we all know how the college game has morphed into having strong running QBs. Three of the four teams in the playoffs had QBs that can run the ball. Wimbush did it better than all of them with his running statistics. If he can improve the passing stats, he will be right there. My gut feel is there will be some Heisman talks for Wimbush this season.

    What is crazy though is the posted pic on this article of how high up on the ball Wimbush’s grip is. That is insane! He throws a pretty tight spiral but obviously there has been accuracy issues at times and I wonder if that has anything to do with it.

  5. I think we’ll know pretty quickly if Wimbush can do it. I don’t think it’s time yet to close the book on Wimbush. The coaches know his passing is an issue and I’m sure Wimbush knows it too. So they know there’s a problem. Can they fix it?

    I think Brandon has the arm strength. After all, how many times did we see him actually throw it too hard to be caught last year. So that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about. I think a lot of it comes down to something simple, accuracy. Putting the ball in a position to be caught.

    He is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands. I don’t want to see him riding the bench. It’d be a huge waste of talent IMO. With his feet, and if our RB’s can play like an elite bunch, he doesn’t have to have record setting passing numbers. But he has to be at least an average passer. We have a lot of potential with the receivers if Wimbush can just get the ball in their hands 60% of the time.

    I think Wimbush’s problems are teachable with the right coaching (I’ll admit I could certainly be wrong, but in just what I see, I believe he can be coached). I just don’t have a lot of faith in BK’s ability to develop QB’s at ND at this point given his track record. This would be a great time to prove me wrong about that.

  6. I watched the spring game and Wimbush looked pretty good with his accuracy reads releasefootwork. Hopefully it carries over to the fall. If he is really good I think Notre dame can be a playoff team.

    1. I believe Brandon Wimbush can do it…and I think he will. One thing is for sure; you can bet that Michigan will try to rattle him as soon as they get the chance. That strategy backfired badly when Michigan State tried it and Brandon responded with a 70% completion rate (most of it in the first half, opening up a devastating ground bombardment later in the game launched by Coach Long, our “O” line, and the RBs.) Result: a really good MSU team got blown out of its own stadium. Brandon can do this…and he doesn’t need to hit 70%…Kelly and Long will do the same kind of damage at home against Michigan, or anyone else, at 60%, as Michael Owens noted above.

      But Miami also tried to rattle Brandon early in the game…and totally succeeded, as we all know. So it’s important that the improvement we saw in the Blue/Gold game, and the natural amount of improvement you usually get from a second year starter shows up early and often. If it does, and it is followed by steady and consistent execution of Coach Kelly and Coach Long’s “O” throughout the season, I see us as playoff destined. Our “D” is way to good for me to see us losing games when our “O” is moving the ball and putting points on the board. Other teams will not be able to get enough points on our “D” under those conditions to win games. That’s the way I see it. And in a really close game – and there are always a couple of those in every National Championship year, the edge goes to us…we have the best field goal kicker in the country!

      BGC ’77 ’82

  7. Brandon’s teammates are going to have to look Into his eyes and ask for the ball. They will be the key to success this season. To much responsibility has been put on His shoulders. Instead of a 60 yard bomb, I want to see an outlet pass or dump pass go for 60 yards repeatedly. Can’t wait to see Brandon lift up the Championship Trophy, it will bring tears to our eyes.

    1. Greg, We had receivers open deep many times in 2017. Brandon missed them far too often, almost always with an overthrow. We need to get receivers open deep again, as well as the short game you described that worked well early in the game against Stanford, and spectacularly well against MSU. But Brandon needs to hit some of those deep routes. And it’s this simple: if he does, the opposing defenses are impossibly spread and the number of reads they have to make after the snap probably gets difficult to manage. Someone has to spy Brandon at least some of the time…but look at everything else they have to do if he can pass fairly well: Speed running game with RB’s, Brandon himself can score running anytime they screw up from anywhere on the field, Brandon can pass a short game to receivers and TE’s, and then they also have to cover deep. That’s the plan, as I see it. In some ways it’s complicated, probably more than any of us who post on this board know. But it is also pretty simple, even basic, football. And it comes down to what it always comes down to with any sound system: Practice and Execution. Brandon, and the team, just need to execute. I mean Brandon saw some of the best defenses last year (his first year as a starter). Georgia – really fast, quick, running stunts, crosses and dogs really well…..MIAMI with their turnover mania and quick penetration…..and I say MSU had a good “D” too, though that’s a team that doesn’t seem to get much respect for some reason. So he’s got some good valuable experience. A lot of QB’s make a lot of improvement from their first year as a starter to their second. I think he’s made some. I think the best thing that could happen would be for Brandon to hit deep, or even middle, once or twice early in the game. And Long will throw deep early in a game. We all know that. Just execute it, and we’ll win.

      BGC ’77 ’82

      BGC ’77 ’82

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