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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, April 21, 2018 5:20 pm

Irish spring game: Final thoughts

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly clearly wanted to put his quarterbacks to the test during the 2018 Blue-Gold game. He ran a pass-heavy, up-tempo offense that forced Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book to make a wide variety of different reads and throws.

Kelly called the pair "1A and 1B" after the game, but at this point it's pretty clear, at least to me, that Wimbush has the inside track to the starting job. Not only is he the incumbent starter, with some huge games under his belt against quality competition, but he also seems to be playing better right now. 

The redshirt senior had accuracy issues last year, completing less than 50 percent of his throws, but those problems seem to have been, if not completely solved, vastly minimized. Wimbush missed on a couple of throws, usually leading his receivers too far or tossing it over their heads, but also made a few throws with pinpoint accuracy.

There were at least four plays that I remember where the New Jersey native put difficult throws right on the money for big gains. One in particular stood out as exceptional. In the second quarter, Wimbush dropped back and the ball popped out of his hands. He caught the ball in the air and instead of panicking and scrambling, stepped up in the pocket and tossed a perfect strike to a well-covered Chase Claypool over the middle for a 19-yard gain. It was Wimbush's most impressive play in my mind, and he finished the game with 341 yards and two touchdowns.

Book was good and made some nice throws, but he doesn't have the kind of arm Wimbush does and now that the latter has improved his accuracy, it's hard to see where Book can separate himself. He finished 19 of 30 for 292 yards and a touchdown, although 85 of those yards came on one Claypool touchdown, on what wasn't a particularly well-thrown ball. 

I've mentioned Claypool twice already and for good reason. He made a couple of huge plays, finishing with six catches for 151 yards and two scores, one from each quarterback. He said after the game that he told both Wimbush and Book the only way the defense could stop him was pass interference, and he backed that up today. Having both Claypool and Miles Boykin on the outside, with Chris Finke in the slot and a pair of talented tight ends, gives Notre Dame an embarrassment of riches in their pass-catching corps and will give whomever ends as the starting quarterback a wider margin for error.

On defense, Carroll graduate Drue Tranquill had a solid game, leading the team with nine tackles and adding a sack. He seems to be settling in at his new position – the "Buck" linebacker – and was constantly around the ball today. Book struggled with the defense's pressure, sometimes dropping his eyes early in the pocket, and was "sacked" (the quarterbacks couldn't be hit) twice on one drive in the first quarter.

Before the game, the Irish announced offensive lineman Alex Bars would be the team's fourth captain. Notre Dame elected three captains at the start of the spring and then Kelly held another vote Friday to determine who had earned the fourth slot. That gives the offensive line two captains (Sam Mustipher is the other) for the second straight year and suggests it might be able to overcome the loss of All-Americans Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey.

Note: There was also good news for the Irish away from the game. As the matchup was coming to a close, four-star 2019 safety Litchfield Ajavon committed to Notre Dame, becoming the second four-star recruit from the class in as many days to choose the Irish. He's the No. 12 safety in the country and the No. 6 player in Virginia, per, and was a major target for Notre Dame in the class. The commitment put a cap on a solid day for the program with 133 more to go before the Irish face Michigan on Sept. 1.