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What to expect from Notre Dame’s quarterbacks against Michigan

Both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book may see the field on Saturday night.

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michigan fans may be used to quarterback uncertainty to start the season, but they are not alone throughout the country. As the 2018 season kicks off this weekend, many programs have a big question mark behind center. Some of it may be due to gamesmanship, but often times there is genuine uncertainty at the position.

Notre Dame appears to fall into the latter category. Head coach Brian Kelly was confident enough to name senior Brandon Wimbush the starter for the opener against Michigan, but noted junior Ian Book could see the field as well. He did not mince words on Tuesday:

“Brandon’s our starter. We’re going to go into the game that he needs to win the game for us. ... Sometimes I’m not the clearest. We’ll put a game plan together for Brandon Wimbush to win the game for us. If there’s any need, we feel great about Ian Book as our No. 2.”

Previously, Kelly also spoke about the differences between the two quarterbacks, specifically the more volatile nature of Wimbush’s game:

“They can both help us win and if we feel like we need them both to play at certain times, we’ll do it, and if we don’t, we won’t. ... What we know more than anything else is what Brandon’s strengths are. We didn’t know that (last year). We were trying to figure out as the season went on, what can we do, what can’t we do. We got frustrated at times and he got frustrated. ... We know exactly what [Wimbush] can do and we’ll set our game plan that really goes to his strengths.”

It is fair to say Kelly would prefer to play Wimbush for the duration of the game, and there is a reason why he was named the starter. However, there looks to be a non-negligible amount of concern regarding the signal caller’s ability, and Kelly recognizes that there may be a need to relieve Wimbush with Book against Michigan. Given the Wolverines’ defense, there is a good chance that this scenario becomes a reality on Saturday.

2017 Notre Dame QB Statistics

Player Comp-Att Comp % Pass Yds Pass TD/Int Rush Yd Rush TD
Player Comp-Att Comp % Pass Yds Pass TD/Int Rush Yd Rush TD
Brandon Wimbush 136-275 49.5 1870 16/6 804 14
Ian Book 46-75 61.3 456 4/4 206 0

Wimbush was the starter for all of 2017, save one week when he was out injured. Book was passable in his absence, going 17-for-31 for 146 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, while also rushing 12 times for 45 yards. He also made a couple other appearances which will be touched upon further below.

Kelly’s decision to go with Wimbush was not surprising at all. Wimbush has the experience and offers a dual-threat capability that can be lethal when utilized correctly. This has been an issue for Michigan in the past, and likely be the biggest challenge for the Wolverine defense in South Bend.

In over half of his games last season, Wimbush recorded over 50 yards on the ground, and four times he hit the 100-yard mark. A quick film review shows that most of his rushes came by design. Notre Dame recognizes his running ability and plans around him with a variety of draws and options.

The numbers do show Wimbush’s accuracy struggles, and the tape generally matches this sentiment. Any quarterback with a completion percentage below 50 percent is not in a good place, and even on completions, Wimbush frequently forced his receivers to adjust to the ball, often limiting additional yardage after the catch.

With just six interceptions, Wimbush did not hurt the Irish as blatantly as some quarterbacks do, but his accuracy left a lot to be desired. Still, his ability to extend plays with his feet and to accumulate heavy yardage on designed runs makes him a potential issue for Michigan against the Irish.

The Case for Book

Though Kelly made the obvious choice at starter, the Notre Dame quarterback situation still has a hint of competition. This began at the end of last year. Wimbush was very poor in the regular season finale, going just 11-for-28 against Stanford. He followed up this showing with a 3-for-8 start against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, which found him benched in the second quarter.

In came Book, who easily had the best game of his career. A 74 percent completion rate was paired with a couple touchdowns and one pick, as well as a memorable game-winning score with under two minutes remaining. It may have been less than one complete game, but some Irish fans were hoping to see much more of Book in 2018 after his Citrus Bowl performance.

Watching Book against both LSU and North Carolina — his only start of last season — shows a competent quarterback. He does not have pinpoint accuracy, but is definitely a better passer than Wimbush, and he shows a decent amount of mobility in the pocket. There are unlikely to be designed rushes for Book, but he can extend plays well and scramble forward when needed.

Book has the better passing fundamentals of the two, but his ceiling looks lower than Wimbush’s at this time. He also lacks game experience, and his decision making is probably a step behind, even if his talent is not. A rough start to the season by Wimbush, though, could see the two flip places.

It is not out of the question Wimbush struggles early against Michigan and finds himself subbed out for Cook like in the Citrus Bowl. However, his legs are easily the most intimidating aspect of either quarterback and the Wolverine secondary should be able to cover the air well regardless of who is at the helm for the Irish. If Michigan can contain Wimbush’s rushing, the Notre Dame offense will struggle on Saturday night.