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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 1:00 am

After first practice, Irish coaches like Wimbush's growth

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Following Notre Dame's first spring practice, coach Brian Kelly was asked what jumped out at him. Almost immediately, he praised quarterback Brandon Wimbush's improvement.

“You could see a big difference in his footwork,” Kelly said. “(He was) throwing the football with the kind of assertiveness you want to see.”

Kelly's praise, as well as Wimbush's status as the incumbent – he started 12 of 13 games last season – seems to signal the rising senior has the early lead in the team's quarterback competition. That doesn't mean he's secured the spot yet, however. Rising junior and 2018 Citrus Bowl hero Ian Book will get a long look and a starter may not be named until fall camp.

If Wimbush has improved his footwork as a passer, he will have taken a huge step toward locking down the starting position. The 6-foot-1 Wimbush, who came out of high school as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, showed flashes throwing the ball last season but was inconsistent. He threw 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions but completed less than half of his passes.

“Last year (Wimbush) would step, wait and it was an all-arm throw,” said Bryan Driskell, a football analyst at Notre Dame sports magazine Blue and Gold Illustrated. “Sometimes he'd release low, sometimes he'd release outside, and it really caused him to be erratic. What we saw in the first practice was a guy that, because his feet and core were correct, it helped him repeat his delivery.”

If Wimbush can improve as a passer, it will make him even more effective as a runner, where he was terrific last season. The New Jersey native averaged 5.7 yards per carry and rushed for over 100 yards four times in 2017, including a 207-yard, four-touchdown explosion against Boston College.

He compiled those numbers running behind one of the nation's best offensive lines. That line will have to be rebuilt this spring after losing All-Americans Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson to the NFL.

Returning starting center Sam Mustipher was diplomatic when he was asked about the quarterback competition after the first practice.

“I think they both do a great job leading,” Mustipher said of Wimbush and Book. “They're two different personalities, but they're both great guys. ... Having them back there, (leadership) is really not a concern, both of them have playing experience, they understand the game.”

The adage that the backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team certainly applies to Book this offseason. The California native stepped into the lineup in the Citrus Bowl after Wimbush struggled and led the Irish to a 21-17 victory over LSU. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns (and an interception) against a well-regarded Tigers defense. Still, Driskell said the position is Wimbush's to lose this spring.

“You can win a game with (Book), but he can't carry a team the way Brandon Wimbush can carry a team when he's right,” Driskell said. “If he (gets right), then he's the starting quarterback, but if he falters and he continues to show the lack of confidence and the poor decision-making and the lack of timing, that's where there's that window for Ian Book.”

Regardless of who ends up claiming the starting job, Kelly said his top priority is making sure the Irish have better run-pass balance than last season.

“We have to be equally adept (running and throwing).” Kelly said in his opening news conference March 5. “And that's really the goal of the spring, more so than if one guy separates themselves.”

dsinn@jg.net