In the final seconds of Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend last month, veteran Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly had to turn to back-up quarterback Malik Zaire when starter DeShone Kizer had been hit hard by a Hokie defender and had to leave the game.
Zaire clearly wasn’t prepared to guide the offense, as he allowed time to run out on the final play before throwing the ball far short of giving Notre Dame any opportunity at all for a win.
“We had a play that was called,” Kelly explained afterward. “(Zaire) Just wasn't aware of the situation as well. Obviously didn't coach it well enough.”
That lack of preparation shouldn’t be an issue moving forward for Notre Dame’s next quarterback, redshirt sophomore-to-be Brandon Wimbush. The young student-athlete has shown a maturity and willingness to prepare for the Notre Dame coaching staff this past season – and that was when he knew that he wouldn’t play.
Wimbush got placed into the spotlight Monday, as Kizer announced his intentions to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. That move, coupled with Zaire’s earlier announcement that he will transfer for the 2017 season, makes Wimbush the prohibitive favorite to be the Irish starter in 2017, as he battles with redshirt freshman-to-be Ian Book.
Wimbush played sparingly during his first season in South Bend after Zaire was injured early in the season, but he spent this past season redshirting. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a productive season for him, however, according to Kelly.
“He’s been engaged,” Kelly said last month of Wimbush’s demeanor and work ethic. “You know, he’s learning.”
Kelly moved Wimbush from No. 3 quarterback to the scout team during this season in order to get him more activity and that helped the young thrower.
“We moved him to scout team so he would get more reps,” Kelly explained, “because he was only getting a few reps as the third-string quarterback. He has been on the scout team and getting a lot of the reps there to keep himself moving the football, throwing the football, staying active.”
Physically, Wimbush is similar in build to Zaire, as well as skill set. He is 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, and has the ability to be a dual-threat player with his arms and legs.
“I think the ball actually comes out of his hand in a manner that we wouldn’t do much (altering) there,” Kelly said. “He’s got really good balance and base. I think most of his work will be just decision making with the football.”
There are a lot of attributes of Wimbush to like, according to Kelly, but his attention to detail is among the most notable. Kelly said that Wimbush is cognizant of a lot around him, including knowing “the janitor’s name.”
“I think he’s a very good leader,” Kelly said. “He cares about his teammates. I think he’s got really good leadership skills because he knows the janitor’s name here. I mean, he is just locked in to all the little things that it takes to be a really good leader.”
Kelly spoke of Kizer growing in that regard throughout this season, which is what the coach was focused on just as much as the mechanics of throwing the ball. The fact that Wimbush is already going down that road has to be pleasing to the Irish coaching staff.
“I’m not quizzing him on game plans, per se,” Kelly said during this past season. “We’re giving him a little leeway from that perspective. But the kid has a great sense of how to interact. He’s extremely respectful in all ways knowing that he’s not playing. I think he’s done a great job.”
Despite not getting into games this season, Kelly did say that Wimbush had good attention skills in the meetings and had a “knowledge base” of what the Irish were trying to do offensively. So beginning today, Wimbush won’t be starting from scratch in learning the nuances of the offense.
“I think he’s been really good in terms of attention to meetings when he knows that he’s not going to get on the field,” Kelly said. “I think he’s handled himself pretty well.
“I’m not grinding him for questions. We’re just making sure that he’s knowledgeable and locked in and getting the proper knowledge base for what we’re doing.”
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