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Football

Wimbush shows promise in Blue-Gold Game

| Monday, April 24, 2017

While Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game marked the culmination of Notre Dame’s spring program in a 27-14 win for the Gold team, Irish head coach Brian Kelly stressed the continued work and progression of a program that has undergone seven coaching changes, a new defensive scheme and a new starting quarterback.

“We wanted to take all of our teaching and then begin the process of competing today,” Kelly said. “So you get 14 practices, you teach, you work on all of the things that coaches work on a day-to-day basis, and then you want to see your team then flip a switch and go into a competitive mode.

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush looks to pass the ball during the Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. Wimbush passed for 303 yards during the game.Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush looks to pass the ball during the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. Wimbush passed for 303 yards during the game.

“ … The next is certainly guys that are continuing to work their traits. I think a lot of guys, for me out there today, did some things that continue to move us in the right direction, and we’re not a finished product. We’re not ready for a game yet. But we certainly did some things that when you look and assess where you are, we feel like we’re making the progress necessary.”

The biggest talking point of the day was seeing Brandon Wimbush take the field as Notre Dame’s starter for the first time. Leading up to the game, Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees had talked up Wimbush’s talent and willingness to learn, but also highlighted his need for consistency. For the junior quarterback’s first start, he fit right into that description.

Wimbush finished the game with 22-for-32 passing and two interceptions in what was not the greatest statistical performance, but one that still had bright spots. Coming up against defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s new scheme, and limited to one-hand touch wearing the red jersey, the junior wasn’t able to use his legs as much as he could, which kept him mostly one-dimensional. He also forced some throws, highlighted by a red-zone interception in the second quarter on third down, but overall he showed his potential.

His arm strength and ability to extend plays was on display in several situations, and as the game went on, Wimbush seemed to get more comfortable, culminating in a one-yard quarterback keeper on his 10th and final drive. Perhaps the best throw of the bunch was a third down roll-out in the fourth, in which he used his legs to create space and time before firing through tight coverage for 16 yards to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool, who also had a strong day.

Kelly thought the stats did not tell the whole picture on Wimbush’s day.

“He’s learning our offense. He’s learning the reads. He’s, again, a freshman quarterback,” Kelly said. “I think every snap that he takes, gets him closer to prepared for where we want him. I don’t think we rate him as struggling versus playing superior football, as much as this is just the learning process for him; that he continues to learn every single day.

“ … So I loved everything that happened to him today. It’s how you take it, right. He’s just wide-eyed, listening, paying attention and just totally committed to the process of getting better. And that’s really what I think about more so than trying to label whether they played really well or they didn’t play really well.”

On the flip side, the Gold team’s starting quarterback, sophomore Ian Book solidified his case as Notre Dame’s backup with a convincing 17-for-22 for 277 yards and a 37-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver C.J. Sanders. The California native made sound decisions with the ball, albeit against the second-string defense. Kelly was pleased with what he saw from the sophomore.

“[It is] what we’ve seen all spring: Consistency, throws strikes, rarely misses an open receiver, can see the field very well, runs the offense very well,” Kelly said on Books’s performance. “ … I think you could point to his performance today and say it was a surprise; it wasn’t a surprise to me. He’s shown that. I thought he would go out and play really well. I’m glad he did.”

Looking ahead, with the spring season wrapped up for the Irish, Kelly still stressed the importance of building good habits and preparing for the season in the newly renovated stadium, not just for his quarterbacks, but the whole team as well.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I mean, I think we have some guys that are further along than others, but this is collectively as a group something that we have to work on every single day. It will be something that’s talked about from today through the summer, all season, and it won’t go away. It’s not really a destination as much as it’s a journey every single day.

“ … There has to be a great sense of pride when you walk into that stadium and that pride has to carry over in your preparation and being focused and locked in every time we come into the stadium. It’s a stadium that is rich in tradition and our guys need to know that they play football at the University of Notre Dame and it’s just a great, great thing that they have and appreciate it.

“ … We want to play a certain style, and we don’t ever want to give football games away. We feel that, you know, our process and preparation should put us in a position where we don’t give games away.”

It’s still over four months until the Irish open against Temple on Sept. 2, but the first taste of the team came on Saturday, and for all the ups and downs, the Irish under Kelly look dialed in.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a junior PLS/Economics double major from Smithtown, New York.

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