Two significant changes on offense will occur when Notre Dame begins spring practice on Wednesday morning (March 8).
One is the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen method when it comes to play-calling will not be a part of the operation. Last year at this time it was referred to as a “collaborative” effort among head coach Brian Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock (now the offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati) and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford (now the head coach at Western Kentucky).
This year, the keys to the kingdom will be entrusted to first-year offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Chip Long, who held the same duties at Memphis last year. If progress occurs, there might even be more tempo added to the offense, but that remains to be worked out in the coming months.
“Like anything else, you have to have a full — 100 percent of your time and effort has to be about doing [tempo], and Chip will be allowed to put all of his time and effort in running the offense and playing fast,” Kelly said this Tuesday while previewing the spring. “I'm going to give him that autonomy to do that. I think over the last few years it's been a committee running the offense. There is no committee now. It's one guy that can kind of turn it loose and run it.”
From his own experience as Cincinnati's head coach from 2007-09, Kelly believes that could benefit Long while the head coach is in more of a supervisory capacity.
“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy,” Kelly said. “I was running it by myself. So I think going back to what I believe is the most efficient way to do it — get out of the way and let Chip run it.”
Second, when spring practice at Notre Dame began a year ago, it was evident from the outset that a starter at quarterback between incumbent DeShone Kizer and former starter Malik Zaire, who lost his job to injury, was not going to be named until the opener (if then).
This spring, with Kizer off to the NFL as an early entrant and Zaire mulling potential landing spots to use his fifth season of eligibility, junior Brandon Wimbush, redshirted last year, is entrusted with the starting role. Sophomore Ian Book, also redshirted in 2016, is the next option.
Wimbush appeared in only two games in 2015 for mop-up duty, completing 3-of-5 passes for 17 yards while adding 96 yards rushing on seven carries (plus a lost fumble), highlighted by a 58-yard TD scamper versus UMass in a 62-27 win.
Wimbush’s physical traits as a passer and runner match anyone Kelly has had at the throttle, but more significant will be the mental aspect and his ability to direct and prepare.
“You've got to be able to handle so many other things that are outside of football,” said Kelly of the quarterback position. “What I'm asking him to do are probably more focused on him just taking care of himself.
“I'm giving him some leadership opportunities, and I think he's doing quite well, but we're not asking him to come in here and lead the entire building. We've got seven, six captains right now. We're going to probably have as many as seven. So he's well supported in that role. He has to have a presence about him. Body language. He's got to have confidence in himself. So those are the areas that I'm spending more time on than him having to take control of the entire football program.”
Because there is no meaningful reference point with games for Wimbush, confidence first has to develop through daily preparation of doing the right things. Excellent competition is always healthy, but Wimbush does not have to feel constricted.
“If he goes out and throws an interception, he doesn't have to hang his head,” Kelly said. “He does so many good things that he can have confidence that he's going to be successful, because what we're looking for is not perfection from these guys. It's excellence.
“I've been the person to stand in front of them and tell them, look, confidence is about having some failures along the way. I was the poster child for that last year. But I'm extremely confident in what we're going to do this year. … He's going to have some setbacks, but have the confidence in yourself to go. So we have to build that in him as well, and the other quarterbacks. They don't have a big résumé to fall back on."
Kelly said Wimbush will receive 60 percent of the main reps this spring while Book will get 40.
“I am a big Ian Book fan,” Kelly said. “I like the way the ball comes out of his hand. He's extremely smart. You talk about some of the traits of excellence, he's got them. … He’s got the tools to be a winning quarterback at Notre Dame, so we've got to get him some work.”
For now, though, it appears this spring there will be one head chef setting the menu on offense and one chosen starter at quarterback to serve up the plays.
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