SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — How quickly Brandon Wimbush forgets how his 2017 season ended could determine how successful Notre Dame is in 2018.
The senior understands what being the Notre Dame quarterback entails — the echoes of Bertelli, Lujack, Huarte, Theismann, Clements, Montana and Rice never end.
“When you play quarterback at the University of Notre Dame, there’s not a bigger position in the country,” Wimbush said. “You feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
After an 8-1 start a year ago, Wimbush and the Irish stumbled with lopsided losses at Miami and Stanford during a November the quarterback would like to forget with just 45 completions in 97 attempts with four interceptions.
When Wimbush started slowly in the Citrus Bowl against LSU, coach Brian Kelly turned to backup Ian Book, who engineered a 15-point fourth quarter with a pair of touchdown passes in a 21-17 victory that gave Notre Dame a 10-3 finish and a springtime battle for the position.
Wimbush, who threw for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns despite completing just 49.5 percent of his passes and added 803 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing, came out ahead of Book, a junior.
“This season being year two, some of that (weight) is off,” Wimbush said. “I trust the other guys that are out there. I’m excited what these guys are going to do this year.”
Second-year offensive coordinator Chip Long likes what the spring battle produced.
“They both have a good grasp of the offense and we can win with both of them,” Long said. “Brandon is so much comfortable in the offense, not thinking as much. His total grasp has been really good.”
Kelly also is excited about a defense that returns 10 starters and improving special teams with veterans in punter Tyler Newsome and placekicker Justin Yoon. He said he believes a Wimbush-led offense, with a rebuilt line and playmakers galore, will be just fine.
“(With Wimbush), it’s just consistency with accuracy; he’s made significant progress even from the spring,” Kelly said. “Offensively, I think it’s dispersion of the football, a lot of different weapons in (Miles) Boykin, (Chase) Claypool, (Chris) Finke, (running backs) Jafar Armstrong, Avery Davis . Tony Jones. We’ve got 3-4 tight ends who can catch the football.”
Notre Dame had a star last season in Josh Adams, but he turned pro and two other running backs are no longer with the Irish. Among the players to watch are Tony Jones Jr., a sophomore who struggled with an ankle injury a year ago. Others in the mix include Dexter Williams, Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong.
ABOUT THAT DEFENSE
Former linebacker coach Clark Lea is now the defensive coordinator running a 4-2-5 defense scheme many Irish feel was a big reason for last year’s 10-3 finish. Last season’s rover, Drue Tranquill, returns for his fifth season at weakside linebacker, senior Te’von Coney moves over to middle linebacker and senior Jerry Tillery moves from nose guard to tackle, where Lea can take better advantage of his pass-rushing skills.
Quarterback Phil Jurkovec is running No. 3 behind Wimbush and Book and has opened eyes with his quick release and accuracy. . First-year players who have been moving up the depth chart include receivers Kevin Austin and Joe Wilkins, offensive linemen Jarrett Patterson and Like Jones, middle linebacker Bo Bauer and safety Houston Griffith, who has been slowed by a hamstring.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
Fiery special teams coordinator Brian Polian is auditioning several players as possible punt and kickoff returners. In addition to incumbent Chris Finke, wideout Michael Young and defensive backs Alohi Gilman and Shaun Crawford have been fielding punts. Crawford and Young also are getting looks returning kickoffs with running backs Tony Jones Jr., Jafar Armstrong, Avery Davis and C’Bo Flemister and safety Nick Coleman.
Notre Dame has five games in September, four of them at home — including the opener against Michigan on Sept. 1 and Stanford. Road games include trips to Virginia Tech (Oct. 6), Northwestern (Nov. 3) and USC (Nov. 24). Florida State pays a visit Nov. 10.