SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brandon Wimbush has been through this before.
The super-talented Irish sophomore quarterback, who’s redshirting this fall, was in a similar spot in 2012. As a sophomore at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J., Wimbush found himself in a backup role despite possessing impressive arm strength and athleticism. The chatter around town was that Wimbush deserved to be his high school’s starting quarterback, though coach Rich Hansen felt he wasn’t ready for the role.
But given all the voices saying Wimbush should’ve been the starting quarterback, Hansen felt the need to sit down with his star-quarterback-in-the-making and explain to him why he’d be a backup that season.
“The meeting ended and he said to me, Coach, I get it. You don’t have to talk to me about this. I get it,” Hansen said. “We never had the conversation again.”
“… It’s about maturity and it’s about a guy really understanding the game and understanding his place and his role. And I think a lot of that may be playing into what’s going on with him at Notre Dame today. Hopefully that helps him.”
As Notre Dame’s 2016 season nears its rocky end, the focus is being shifted on how things could be — and need to be — fixed in 2017. One of the most noticeable changes for the Irish next year will be a new defensive coordinator, but there’s likely another big one on the horizon: A new quarterback.
While DeShone Kizer isn’t publicly indicating whether or not he’ll declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, he’s projected as a potential top-three pick next spring. And if Kizer leaves (and Malik Zaire, who will be eligible to leave as a graduate transfer, does too), the keys to Notre Dame’s offense will be handed to Wimbush.
By all accounts, the 6-foot-1, 225 pound Wimbush has spent his 2016 on the sidelines getting ready for that task.
“(He’s) been engaged, learning,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think he's been a very good leader. (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 just is locked in to all the little things that take to be a really good leader. And then I think he's been really good in terms of attention to meetings when he knows he's not going to get on the field. So I think he's handled himself pretty well.”
Offensive lineman and team captain Mike McGlinchey agreed with his coach’s assessment.
“He's a phenomenal kid and we're lucky to have him in our locker room,” McGlinchey said. “I can't say enough great things about Brandon because ever since he's gotten here, he's done everything the right way, treats his teammates the right way and there's a lot of great things to come from Brandon in the future here.”
Wimbush’s path to being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback isn’t a well-traveled one, given he played two games as a true freshman but was redshirted for his sophomore season. His freshman year came with some good (his 58-yard touchdown run against UMass) and some bad (his sack-strip fumble against Pitt), but that he got a taste of college football only to be relegated to third string duties for Year 2 is a challenge that could’ve proved difficult to handle.
However, Wimbush has not only used this opportunity to prepare for potentially being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback next fall, but also to continue working toward his degree from Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business. Wimbush interned for KPMG in the summer and said during the spring he hopes to be a “big-time CEO” someday.
“He wants to play on Sundays one day, but at the same time, he wants to be a leader of a Fortune 500 company,” Madei Williams, Wimbush’s personal quarterback coach, said. “So there’s a strong balance.”
Add Wimbush’s academic goals to his high school experience as a two-year backup, and it becomes clear why there never was any threat of him transferring away from Notre Dame even as Kelly said in February that the plan was to preserve a year of his eligibility in 2016. But there’s more to it, too: Williams, a former Syracuse quarterback who first met Wimbush when he was in eighth grade, lauded his uncommon maturity.
“I think he’s wise beyond his years,” Williams said. “If you have the opportunity to spend substantial time with him, you realize that he’s a very mature kid. Not easily rattled, easygoing. Someone who is very likable, very easy to be around.
“So that’s why I believe his personality and his presence is so infections and contagious that people are naturally drawn to him. And that’s what you want from the potential leader of your program. Especially someone that has to be the face of Notre Dame.”
Kelly mentioned that Wimbush has been somewhat of a leader for Notre Dame, too, which is high praise for a guy who hasn’t played a single snap this season and only receives sparing third-string and scout team reps during practice.
It’s perhaps been a little easier on Notre Dame’s coaches to work with Wimbush during his redshirt year given that his throwing mechanics don’t need much refinement (which is considerably different than those of Kizer during his first, and even second, year on campus). The ball explodes out of Wimbush’s hand, and he makes it look easy, too.
Wimbush always had the arm talent, but through countless reps under the watch of Hansen and Williams, he came to Notre Dame with excellent footwork and a clean, quick release. That means coaches won’t have to spend much time with him on that aspect of his game if and when Kizer does leave and Wimbush takes over the offense.
“He rips the ball,” Kizer said. “He definitely throws one of the best balls on the team for sure.”
Kizer is certainly the best quarterback Notre Dame has had under Kelly, and arguably is the best Irish quarterback of the last 20 years. Replacing him, in a vacuum, would seem difficult.
But Wimbush already knew how to handle a year on the sidelines when he came to Notre Dame. And when he got his chance at St. Peter’s Prep, he excelled (he threw 22 touchdowns and one interception his senior year).
So there’s no doubt in his high school coach’s mind that Wimbush will follow the same path in South Bend.
“When he gets the ball at Notre Dame, believe me,” Hansen said, “he’s going to be lights out.”