Brandon Wimbush's next direction will set the course for Notre Dame in 2017

Brandon Wimbush had an up-and-down spring game for Notre Dame, but he's still the key for the Irish heading into 2017.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brandon Wimbush split through the line of scrimmage and emerged holding the ball up high after a two-yard touchdown run for Notre Dame.

This was with running clock with 7:34 left in the fourth quarter of the Blue-Gold Spring Game at Notre Dame on Saturday. That might seem insignificant now, but there's value to be found later. Wimbush's touchdown capped his ninth drive and was the final score in the Gold's 27-14 victory. The quarterback tasked with helping Notre Dame reverse course from a 4-8 season in 2016 also led a seven-play, 70-yard scoring drive for the Blue team to start the game.

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Everything else in between will be subject to debate until Notre Dame opens its season against Temple on Sept. 2. Wimbush finished 22 of 32 for 303 yards passing, but he also threw two interceptions. He took seven sacks, though that statistic is impossible to discern functional value given Wimbush could have escaped from at least a few. There is still a question here that will determine which direction the Irish are headed next.

What do the Irish have at quarterback? Wimbush peppered passes to big-and-tall receivers, and he's a next-gear runner in space. Yet he still had an up-and-down performance that prompted Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to say, "No, there is no quarterback controversy."

That's life as the Irish's newly-minted starting quarterback. No position comes with more scrutiny, especially coming off a 4-8 season.

"I don't know, characterizing struggling; I mean, he's learning our offense," Kelly said in Wimbush's defense. "He's learning the reads. He's, again, a (young) quarterback. He's, again, I think every snap that he takes, gets him closer to prepared for where we want him. I don't think we rate him as struggling vs. playing superior football, as much as this is just the learning process for him; that he continues to learn every single day."

That talent is easy to see. Wimbush led that first TD drive with chunk completions to tight end Alize Mack and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown before Josh Adams busted a 25-yard touchdown run. That's the perfect script to follow for the offense under first-year offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Wimbush strolled into the postgame presser wearing a suit with orange sleeves rolled up and kept the answers quick. He's got that part of being a starting quarterback down pat.

"I played within the system," Wimbush said. "The offense moved the ball as you saw. We had opportunities to put the ball in the end zone and came up short a few times, but I think the offense looked the part."

Perhaps one play in the second quarter showed why Wimbush is the part at quarterback. He threaded a sideline route to St. Brown between defenders Nick Watkins and Jalen Elliott for a 31-yard gain. He the ball to Miles Boykin (5 catches, 102 yards), St. Brown (3 catches, 69 yards), Chase Claypool (4 catches, 63 yards) and Mack (5 catches, 46 yards). All four of those receivers are 6-foot-4 or taller. Wimbush will put up numbers in this offense as he grows into it.

There were balances to that success. That second-quarter drive stalled on a fourth-and-4 when Elliott intercepted Wimbush on a tipped pass. Wimbush also felt the pressure; which came as a result of a four-sack performance by defensive lineman Daelin Hayes. How Wimbush responds to that when the red jersey comes off will be interesting to see.

Like Kelly said, it's the learning that comes with it. Wimbush converted two third downs with strikes to Mack on a drive in the third quarter, but that same drive ended with a forced a third-and-goal from the 24-yard line and was intercepted by Watkins. That's one where the field goal would have worked.

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"We're growing and we're in a process," Wimbush said. "It's delayed gratification that comes with it."

Quarterbacks are always the No. 1 storyline during Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame. DeShone Kizer led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl in 2015 and put up 2,925 passing yards, 472 rushing yards and 34 total TDs last season despite the 4-8 record. At Notre Dame, it's about the stats, the wins, and of course, the backup quarterback. Ian Book led the Gold team by going 17 of 22 for 277 yards and a TD, and Kelly even admitted that the Irish "play the No. 2 guy quite a bit" afterward.

That doesn't mean there's a controversy, and it's probably if that never develops this season.

That means Wimbush takes hold of the starting role. He's set on improving through the summer months. That's where that ninth drive comes in. Wimbush set up his own touchdown with a crossing route to Claypool, who tiptoed in bounds at the two-yard line.

The Blue team still trailed by two scores, but Wimbush was still playing. Chances are he'll be in that position at some point in the fall. Then he could hold the ball up high for the Irish when it means something more. That's something he wants to get used to.

"All the habits that the best of the best have developed," Wimbush said. "Whether it's in here on a consistent basis and studying film with guys who have questions. I don't know. Coach Kelly has been harping on habits and doing things over and over again … I think we've all done a great job of developing these habits."

Kelly is willing to leave it at that for now.

"I loved everything that happened to him today." Kelly said. "It's how you take it, right. He's just wide-eyed, listening, paying attention and just totally committed to the process of getting better. And that's really what I think about more so than, you know, trying to label whether they played really well or they didn't play really well."

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