EXCLUSIVE: Brian Kelly announces Ian Book out, Brandon Wimbush to start against Florida State
The Observer sat down with Irish head coach Brian Kelly and senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush on Thursday in a set of exclusive interviews to discuss Wimbush’s unexpected transition back to the starting job this week.
Early Thursday morning, reports broke on Twitter that Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book would not start against Florida State on Saturday due to an undisclosed medical condition. The news came as a surprise to many, as the program revealed no such injury or decision during media sessions earlier in the week.
In Thursday afternoon’s general press conference, Irish head coach Brian Kelly remained largely noncommittal on Book’s condition, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the offense, as he refused to name a starter and called Book’s status “day-to-day.”
Earlier in the day, Kelly told The Observer that Book would be sidelined in the matchup with Florida State due to a rib injury suffered during the first half against Northwestern. Kelly made it clear that the decision was precautionary, and dismissed notions that the injury was internal.
“He got kneed. This is really much more of a rib injury,” Kelly said. “But as you know, when we’re talking about a rib injury, there’s a grade that can go from broken ribs to bruised ribs to internal injuries, so from this perspective, if he had severe kidney issues, that’s four to six weeks. We’re not dealing with that. … We think he’ll be prepared to play next week. We’re very confident that, if everything continues to move in the direction it has up to this point, that he’ll be able to play against Syracuse.”
Wimbush, who opened the season as Notre Dame’s starter, will return under center for the Irish, with true freshman Phil Jurkovec as backup. While Kelly is hopeful Book will return next week, he is also confident Wimbush and Jurkovec have what it takes to get the job done.
“It’s an injury that was one that, we monitored it from day-to-day and as we got later in the week, it became pretty evident that we were going to be conservative with it,” Kelly said of Book’s status. “I don’t know that there was any preconceived notion that he was out, because I think you saw as well as anybody else that he did pretty good in the second half. But we wanted to be conservative with how we move forward, and as we moved through the week, it became pretty clear that [not starting him] would be the best course of action for him in the long run.”
Wimbush added that, while this week’s preparation has required him to shake off some rust, he feels he has had the proper mindset throughout the entire season to come into a situation such as this one.
“[Quarterbacks coach] Tommy [Rees] texted me, I was in class on Monday, he was like, ‘I need to see you, urgently, ASAP, get over here,’” Wimbush said about when he first found out he’d be the starter. “He let me know that Ian was probably not going to be playing this week, so we need to get you prepared. And prior to this week, I hadn’t really been taking a lot of quarterback reps, your reps get reduced when you’re taking the twos. Obviously I’m taking the majority of the reps right now, and it’s the mindset of ‘you’d better do everything in your mindset to go out there and win this weekend for the guys and for the program.’”
With the Irish also set to celebrate Senior Night against the Seminoles, Kelly disparaged any sense that the decision to start Wimbush revolved around honoring the senior for his contributions to the program.
“If Ian Book was in a position where we didn’t feel like we would heighten his medical risks, he would have played,” Kelly said. “And I think that, that at the end of the day, is really the crux of the decision.”
But for Wimbush, the opportunity to start this game provides the added benefit of allowing him to start at Notre Dame Stadium in front of friends and family, potentially for the last time.
“It’s a great opportunity to go out here and do what I’ve done here for the last year-and-a-half,” he said. “It’s Senior Night, so to be able to go out there with those guys and the guys that you know and be able to go out and enjoy one more night, so it’s going to be something special. I know the weather’s going to be pretty cold and we’ll use that to our advantage, but it’s just another great Notre Dame evening. Like I said, a great opportunity.”
Despite a 12-3 record as a starter, including a season-opening win over rival Michigan in September, Wimbush was benched Week 4 in favor of Book, after Notre Dame’s offense struggled at home against Ball State and Vanderbilt. But the senior took the decision in stride, being widely praised for his reaction and his continued positive interactions with Book since the switch, and feels he is a better quarterback because of it.
“I do agree [I’m better now]. I’ve taken it personally over those past six weeks to kind of improve my game, and you really get to do that from a different perspective when you’re the backup,” Wimbush said. “I think I’ve done the little things and focused on the little details and fundamentals of playing quarterback to get me to where I am today, so hopefully that shows on Saturday.”
Kelly echoed those sentiments, and pointed out Wimbush’s ability to focus on his shortcomings during his time on the sidelines.
“I think a lot of the things that he got a chance to work on, some of the throws that at times he mechanically struggled with, he was able to really break those down and work on those individually because he wasn’t getting all the reps,” Kelly said of the senior’s development as the backup. “We all have areas and weaknesses that sometimes will never go away, but he’s able to take those weaknesses and work on them, and I think he’s better for it.”
With Book out, freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec is set to be on the Irish depth chart for the first time this season as the backup. Kelly said much of the work this week has been getting him up to speed.
“Phil got a lot of work this week. He’s drinking through a fire hose right now,” he said. “But he’s a young man that’s got a competitiveness about him, and he’s excited about the opportunity that it’s put him and put himself in and he got all the reps with the second team. We had to prepare him. I think in a large degree as the head coach, I think a lot of my concerns were getting him ready. Brandon, he’s started  games and he’s won a lot of games. That’s not my number-one concern. He’s going to go out and play well. It’s getting Phil ready.”
Wimbush’s relationship with Jurkovec is a different one, of course, but as he has done with Book over the last six weeks, Wimbush has also become a mentor to the freshman. After having worked with Jurkovec, Wimbush said he is looking forward to seeing him succeed as he goes forward.
“You guys will be excited to see him go out there and play, and the type of character that he is,” Wimbush said regarding Jurkovec’s potential. “I think Ian and I have done a great job of taking him under our wing and getting him adapted to the quarterback room. And I think he’s going to be just fine. If he has his opportunity, whether it be this weekend, or next year or any time down the road, I think he’s going to exceed everyone’s expectations. He’s eager to learn, and that makes it easy in the quarterback room. He has all the right tools, and I’m excited to see him ball.”
While Notre Dame fans might be nervous about such a big change with an undefeated season and the College Football Playoffs on the line, Wimbush expressed confidence in both himself and his team’s ability to get the job done.
“A year-and-a-half under my belt, so it’s not a long time, but it’s definitely worth noting,” he said. “The team is behind me and the defense is playing superb and special teams is almost there and they’re going to show what they’ve been working on, so I’m just going to keep the offense rolling and play my game and I think everything will work out.”