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Notre Dame once again has a quarterback dilemma on its hands

| Friday, September 28, 2018

Like a broken record, Brian Kelly once again finds himself in the middle of a quarterback debacle. In the eight seasons the head coach has been with the Irish, only twice has the same quarterback started the entire season. Some years — like the Everett Golson–Tommy Rees combo that led Notre Dame to the 2012 national championship game — found a rhythm, with each accepting their respective roles. Other times, the situation more closely resembled the saga that came to be Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer. Now, the question that’s been looming since the 2018 Citrus Bowl has finally surfaced — Brandon Wimbush or Ian Book?

Eddie Griesedieck
Irish junior quarterback Ian Book runs between two defenders and into the end zone during Notre Dame’s 56-27 win over Wake Forest on Saturday.

The critical difference between the Golson–Rees and Zaire–Kizer duels was the coaching staff’s approach. In 2012, after some trial and error, Golson and Rees came to complement each other, the latter being less athletic but with more experience. Of course, it always helps team chemistry when you run the regular season schedule. Only three years later, Kelly failed to take a lesson from his own playbook in understanding the quarterback dynamic, starting Zaire before Kizer took over three games in, with Zaire ultimately transferring the following year. Arguably, this is an unfair example, comparing apples to oranges, with each quarterback making different contributions on and off the field. 

Now, for the third time in the Kelly era, the battle for the Notre Dame quarterback was been thrown back into the spotlight and Kelly seems intent on preventing the Zaire–Kizer drama from repeating. 

“I think that their skill sets — and I think I’ve been pretty clear on this from preseason camp our first press conference together, that they complement each other, but I don’t think that they have the same skill sets,” he said. “They’re different in that sense.”

Wimbush, the starter for all of last season with the exception of the North Carolina game for which he was injured, seemed to secure the starting position over the summer, with Kelly repeatedly emphasizing that although Book would be included in the rotation, the senior was the guy for the Irish. However, despite a solid showing against Michigan, Wimbush failed to capitalize in the next two games against lackluster opponents, even getting picked off three times by Ball State. So naturally, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Book, the junior who had been waiting on the sideline for this shot.

And he didn’t disappoint. Book’s 325 yards were nothing to scoff at, and the junior certainly didn’t lose the starting position (although it remains to be seen who will be starting against the Cardinal). But the season’s only a quarter of the way done, with many of the tougher opponents awaiting the chance to end Notre Dame’s playoff hopes. The Irish are going to need more than one toolbox of weapons in their artillery. 

“Look, it’s important that everybody knows that both of these quarterbacks can win football games for us. … So as coaches, we have to keep both of them sharp,” Kelly said in a press conference Tuesday.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush surveys the defense during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan on Sept. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium.

There’s no doubt where each quarterback’s strengths lie — Wimbush in running and creating out of the pocket, Book in passing and executing the offense. This has all the potential to play out like the Golson–Reese narrative, with each player putting the team’s best interest first. This Saturday’s matchup could define how Kelly approaches each player, depending on their unique personalities, and more importantly, how they respond.

The Cardinal defense has held opponents to an impressively low 13.5 points per game, a daunting number for a Notre Dame team that has struggled to put up effective second-half offensive production. Additionally, they’ve done this as a dual threat, limiting long gains before shutting down the run game in the red zone. It’s not unlikely that both Wimbush and Book will be called on at one point throughout the evening to deliver for the Irish.

“We don’t want to look back,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to look forward. It’s in the moment. And so whatever is going to get us a win against Stanford this week, if we feel like playing both of them every other series is the best thing to win, we’ll do it. We’re not here to please any one group. We’re just trying to win games.”

Now, as Notre Dame fans await the first snap on Saturday, it’s clear that this question may not be answered come Sunday.

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