Notre Dame’s starting quarterback at North Carolina will be a game-day decision, per head coach Brian Kelly after Thursday’s practice.
Yet whether it will be junior incumbent Brandon Wimbush, who was slowed by a Grade 1 foot strain this week, or backup sophomore Ian Book, there are several reasons for optimism among Irish faithful.
First, the 1-4 Tar Heels have been ravaged by attrition perhaps more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team this season, already having lost 13 players for the duration of the year because of injury, after seeing virtually all of their 2016 playmakers depart as well.
Second, the North Carolina defense ranks among the worst nationally, including 112th against the run (221.8 yards per game and 4.97 yards per carry) — not ideal versus Notre Dame’s No. 7 ground attack (301.4 yards per game and 7.1 yards per carry) — 106th in team pass efficiency defense, and No. 105 in scoring defense (33.0 points per game).
Finally, Kelly’s history at Notre Dame suggests his teams often are at their best when the No. 2 quarterback is thrust into action. Kelly is 6-0 at Notre Dame when a quarterback makes his starting debut, but more significant is when and how a new signal-caller responded in an emergency as the starter:
• In Kelly’s first season, freshman Tommy Rees, now the first-year quarterbacks coach for the Irish, had to make his starting debut versus No. 15 Utah after junior Dayne Crist was lost for the season because of a knee injury.
For the first time in his career at Notre Dame, Kelly went into multiple tight end packages and emphasized a physical ground attack, with Rees serving mainly in a caretaker capacity. The Irish defeated the Utes 28-3 with Rees completing 13 of 20 passes for 129 yards and three touchdowns in the conservative attack that led Kelly to return to what he referred to as “the basic tenets of football.”
Notre Dame won its final four games that season with Rees at the throttle and the defense at the forefront. (Rees also would help save several games off the bench during the 12-0 regular season in 2012, including a start in the 17-14 win versus BYU.)
• Notre Dame entered the 2014 Music City Bowl versus No. 22 LSU on a four-game losing streak that dropped them to 7-5.
Kelly opted to start sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire for the first time, with some assistance from incumbent Everett Golson off the bench. Zaire was named Game MVP while rushing for 96 yards and passing for 96 as well, completing 12 of his 15 passes, with zero turnovers. The “basic tenets” featured 263 yards rushing against the Tigers in the 31-28 victory.
• In 2015, when Zaire was lost for the season in the second half of game 2, sophomore DeShone Kizer was forced into action at Virginia, where his 39-yard scoring strike to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left won the game.
In his initial start the next week, versus No. 14 Georgia Tech, Kizer was an efficient 21 of 30 passing for 242 yards and a score in a 30-22 win in which two late Tech TDs made the final score closer than the game actually was. Kizer also was aided by 198 yards rushing from C.J. Prosise, highlighted by a 91-yard touchdown.
Kizer went on to have a sensational campaign that put him in position to become a second-round pick as a junior the ensuing season. The team’s rushing yardage total that season (207.6) was the most at the school in 17 years, when including the bowl game.
Whether Wimbush will be able to start his sixth straight contest or Book is inserted as a first-time starter, the overall operation should be strong enough this season to continue to remain productive.