SOUTH BEND – Much of the focus in Saturday's Notre Dame spring football game will be centered on the play of first-time starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That attention will certainly come from the fans in attendance, as well as those watching on national TV. Veteran Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly also will study the play of Wimbush with great intensity, but in a different manner.
“It's more about the process,” Kelly said of what he'll be looking for out of his team. “That is really more important; at this moment; more so than what Wimbush's numbers are.”
The Irish will play their annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium at 12:30 p.m. (NBCSN).
Kelly and his coaches have been emphasizing mental toughness and the basics of sound fundamental execution all spring and Wimbush has been solid in both of those regards, according to Kelly. The redshirt sophomore may indeed have good numbers, but Kelly wants to see leadership and execution more than just an impressive quarterback rating when the game is finished.
“We started well three months ago,” Kelly said of the off-season, “I want to finish strong. When I say finish strong, it's really not about production in the game, it's about the process. So I want to make sure, for example, there is an attention to detail with all of the position groups.”
Wimbush gained a little bit of experience in his freshman season as a back-up to starter DeShone Kizer two seasons ago when Malik Zaire got hurt. But Kelly said like most true freshmen playing such a critical position, he “was just hoping (Wimbush) would get the snap.”
Wimbush took advantage of his redshirt season last year and continued to develop as he led the scout team, but also mentally and that has carried over into this spring.
“We didn't have much to go off of,” Kelly said of evaluating Wimbush this spring. “What I have been most impressed with him is that he listens very well. He is a guy that will listen, make the appropriate adjustments, and come back and go to work on what you've instructed him.”
During Wednesday's practice, Wimbush demonstrated both accuracy and velocity at times with his arm, but also exhibited his speed as a runner.
First-year offensive coordinator Chip Long doesn't have any experienced players lining up behind Wimbush, so he probably won't have Wimbush playing recklessly, but make no mistake about it, with that degree of athleticism, he'll run the ball. That threat, along with a much more varied and talented offense around him, has led Kelly and Long to adjust how they operate within their run-pass option schemes (RPO) from recent Notre Dame offenses.
“There are definite differences,” Kelly said of the past schemes and today's. “I think that requires, first of all, the ability to run the football. If there is an effective run game, you really put that second level player (linebackers) in a very impossible situation.
“I think that it also requires a quarterback that gets the ball out of his hand quickly and has some accuracy. If you are long and not very accurate, your RPOs are not very effective. We match the quarterback with the offense and the personnel to get to where we feel like that becomes a part of our offense.”
In many ways, Wimbush will have luxuries that Kizer never got to enjoy last fall, as Notre Dame struggled to a horrendous 4-8 season. The Irish should have a more consistent offensive line, as well as a wealth of talent and depth at the receiver position, tight ends, and runners. The potential for this offense is immense and so far, Wimbush is operating within it smoothly, according to Kelly.
“His presence,” Kelly said, “(Wimbush) runs that offense like he has been running it for a few years. There is no panic. There is a calmness. There is an organization to it. He runs the offense like he has been doing it for quite some time.”
For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.