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Mulvena: Brandon Wimbush won the starting job in the Blue-Gold Game

| Monday, April 23, 2018

Senior Brandon Wimbush put an end to the quarterback competition Saturday.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly may not come out and say it, and the team may not even publicize that view at all in the coming future, but it still happened.

Kelly needs to acknowledge Wimbush as the starter. Maybe not today, maybe not even within the month, but as, my colleague Tobias Hoonhout said in his column Friday, he needs to name a starter before the Michigan game to avoid the problems the team faced in 2016. And Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game gave him every reason to have confidence in Wimbush as the starter on Sept. 1.

Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush looks to pass during Notre Dame’s 21-17 win over LSU on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl.

There are clearly questions surrounding Wimbush’s passing abilities after last season. He’s proved himself on the ground, but he can be shaky when it comes to maintaining composure in the pocket. And, as last season made clear, the Irish need a pocket passer, to some extent, to go from a good season to a top-four season. Wimbush addressed these doubts head on during Saturday’s spring game. Kelly said he forced Wimbush to stay in the pocket, perhaps longer than he is comfortable with.

I wasn’t going to let him run. I told him that,” Kelly said. “I’m standing back out here in the field with the whistle because I’m going to blow it once you take off. So if you want the play to end with a sack, that’s what you’ll do. If not, hang in there and keep your eyes downfield, and let’s try to make some plays.”  

For the most part, Wimbush looked great in the pocket. He was pulled from the game towards the end of the third quarter, but he finished 19-of-33 with 341 yards in the air, an impressive stat line for a quarterback who, by last year’s standards, is not used to staying in the pocket and was forced to do so against a solid Notre Dame defense. His most impressive completion was a 64-yard pass to senior wideout Miles Boykin for a touchdown — he threw into coverage and hit Boykin in stride on a dime. Beyond that, Wimbush hit several receivers on corner routes near the sidelines despite solid coverage. Plus, Wimbush’s vision over the middle was impressive. He may not have completed enough passes over the middle, but he certainly found the open receiver while in the pocket.

Now, Wimbush did look a little sloppy on some of his incompletions and his second-quarter interception. In that quarter, after throwing a bullet to senior tight end Alize Mack over the middle, Wimbush threw right into double coverage, intended for sophomore wideout Michael Young. He threw into heavy coverage earlier as well when he was picked off by junior safety Jalen Elliott. Sequences like that made him look shaky and inconsistent. But really, these blips are not emblematic of Wimbush’s capabilities in the pocket during the regular season.

It was the Blue-Gold Game. A spring game. Kelly even said he made Wimbush stay in the pocket more than usual. It was designed. Wimbush kept the ball only four times Saturday, whereas he averaged almost 12 rushing attempts per game last season. In a game that matters, Wimbush will have the freedom to keep the ball if he needs to. If the Irish were up against Michigan, maybe instead of throwing to Young in double coverage, Wimbush would have kept it for an 18-yard rush, as we very well know he is capable of doing.

The point is this: Wimbush proved that, if he needs to, he can stay in the pocket. He has the vision to find receivers over the middle. He can hit junior wide receiver Chase Claypool on a corner route near the sideline if he has to. He has the arm strength and composure to find receivers down field and lead them to the end zone.

Junior Ian Book also played well Saturday, but he gave Kelly no reason to think he is still in contention for the starting quarterback position. He did connect with Claypool for an 85-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He was also sacked seven times. He made some nice throws from the pocket, but he also looked flustered at times, electing to keep the ball in questionable situations. His pocket-passing abilities were not nearly good enough to trump Wimbush’s dual-threat game, which now features a much improved pocket-passing component. 

All in all, Wimbush showed that he can be counted on as a reliable passer from the pocket this season. We already know the damage he can do on the ground, and with this new improvement, there is no reason not to name him the starter before September. He’s only bound to get better in the pocket with more reps like those he took during Saturday’s game, which will breed confidence and mechanical consistency. For a team that needs leadership at quarterback, all signs point to Wimbush as the guy after Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

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

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