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O’Boyle: Wimbush will be quarterback going forward, despite flaws

| Friday, October 6, 2017

Here’s something we know: If Notre Dame loses to 1-4 North Carolina, it’ll ruin its season.

That goes without saying. This Tar Heels team started the year without much experience and has been ravaged by injuries. Its only victory this year was over Conference-USA opponent Old Dominion.

There’s a lot to say about how a loss to the Tar Heels would set the team back just when it looked to have found itself, and right before the Irish (4-1) play No. 14 USC in what could be a top-15 matchup.

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book fires a pass during Notre Dame's 52-17 win over Miami (OH) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Peter St. John | The Observer

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book fires a pass during Notre Dame’s 52-17 win over Miami (OH) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

But when a 4-1 team plays a 1-4 opponent, the consequences of a loss are obvious.

The unique danger this game could bring is if the Irish win and it still sets the team back.

Why? Well, here’s something we don’t know: the starting quarterback. Junior Brandon Wimbush injured his foot last weekend against Miami (OH), and Irish head coach Brian Kelly said whether Wimbush or sophomore Ian Book starts will be a game-day decision.

Here’s something else we know: North Carolina’s defense is bad. The Tar Heels have given up an average of 33 points per game this season, placing them 105th in the nation. They’ve given up over 450 yards per game, including an absurd 705 yards to Lamar Jackson’s Louisville. And because of the team’s incredibly unfortunate injury luck, the Tar Heel defense is probably even worse right now than it was early in the season.

So let’s say Ian Book starts. And let’s say he performs well. There’s two weeks before the Irish play USC, and fresh on everyone’s mind is the backup’s success.

Some fans will call for Book to start against the Trojans (4-1, 2-1 Pac-12). Will it be a majority? Almost certainly not, but it’ll be enough for Wimbush to start to hear about it. Maybe even national media will discuss the prospect of a “quarterback controversy.” Will Kelly listen to those fans? No, but after unnecessarily pulling DeShone Kizer last year, people will talk about the likelihood Book sees the field for meaningful time again.

And all because of play against a defense that a healthy Wimbush would have had little trouble with.

It doesn’t help that Wimbush still appears to be building his confidence. Some easy throws against Michigan State helped him to his best passing game of the season. A big run early in the second half against Boston College when the passing game was struggling helped him produce the best rushing game an Irish signal-caller has ever had. The last thing Wimbush needs is to believe he has to look over his shoulder. He needs to go into the biggest game of the year with confidence. Even a completely manufactured controversy could hurt this team.

Wimbush has shown glaring flaws as a passer. That is undeniable. But a quarterback’s job is more than passing the football, and Wimbush is among the most dynamic runners in the nation. Not just at quarterback; he’s among the most dynamic runners at any position. He’s led the offense to four excellent performances and one loss to a Georgia team which has shown it boasts arguably the best front-seven in the nation. He’s not DeShone Kizer, but Kizer’s gone. Wimbush is still more than good enough. Book is talented, sure. But any scholarship quarterback at a school like Notre Dame has talent. And too many find that when the backup comes in, there’s a reason why they were second on the depth chart.

Or let’s say Wimbush plays and does well. That’s great. But it doesn’t mean his accuracy issues will have disappeared, no matter what he does against this Tar Heels defense. As much as the team needs to keep its confidence in Wimbush, he needs much more work as a passer. If he can pass the ball against North Carolina, it doesn’t mean he can do the same against the Trojans.

And if Wimbush struggles, how do we know what to make of it? How much of it is his injury? We really don’t know what state the Irish quarterback’s right foot is in, or how confident in his health Kelly would need to be to start him. Kelly should be cautious with Wimbush’s injury, but if he believes Wimbush could work on his passing by playing with less mobility, we may see him play. If his accuracy struggles continue, that’s not the end of the world. The strength of Wimbush’s game will likely be greatly reduced.

Regardless of the performance, one game against an injury-ravaged North Carolina should not determine the future of the Irish at the most important position on the field. Whatever happens, this is the absolute worst time for overreactions.

Regardless of how Ian Book handles himself, Brandon Wimbush is this team’s quarterback going forward.

That’s one thing we definitely know.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel