- In this week's mailbag, a closer look at Notre Dame's two options at quarterback, the magical powers assigned to new strength coaches and the potential unintended consequences of the Olympic model for student-athlete compensation.
Most quarterback competition questions seem difficult to answer at this point. But the answer to at least one seems apparent if the head coach’s public pronouncements are accurate...
From Tom: Ian Book or Brandon Wimbush?
The Notre Dame quarterback situation turned fascinating during the Citrus Bowl when Brian Kelly lifted Wimbush in favor of Book and then Book helped the Fighting Irish to a win against LSU. While this one didn’t feel like a passing of the torch—as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa replacing Jalen Hurts in the national title game did—it did add a layer of intrigue to the offseason for the Fighting Irish.
But it seems Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has worked hard to make clear that the job is Wimbush’s to lose. Consider this exchange from his press conference after the Notre Dame spring game.
Q: Quarterbacks where are you with that and where do you want to go with it this summer?
Kelly: What do you mean, in terms of their development? You want me to name somebody? [Is] that what you guys are doing?
Q. Yes. Or not.
Kelly: Or not. I think it's pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group.
That feels like a pretty definitive statement, and all of Kelly’s other public statements this spring had a similar tone. The gist is that Wimbush has the higher upside and if he can reach his potential, he could be quite dynamic in an offense that should still run the ball well but may not be quite as dominant on the ground as when Josh Adams carried behind Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey last year. Wimbush averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt while completing only 49.5% of his passes. If he can boost his completion percentage—perhaps with some high-percentage throws closer to line of scrimmage—then that yards per attempt number will climb closer to eight. Get the passing game there and combine it with a run game that should still be above average, and Notre Dame should have a formidable offense.
From Dan: I see a lot of new coaches talking about overhauling the offseason conditioning program (Scott Frost, Dan Mullen). Does that mean their predecessors didn’t understand its importance? Did Purdue win more games partly because Jeff Brohm brought in a better strength and conditioning coach?
A few years ago, I wrote a series of preseason cliché story Mad Libs. The one that rang the truest was the new strength coach story.
If you don’t feel like writing your own, I’ll give you the basic beats.
• Team changes strength coaches either because the old one was fired, the old one left for a better job or an entirely new staff has taken over.
• New strength coach privately questions old strength coach’s methods. New coaching staff privately compares the weight room they found when they took over to nearby Curves. Players and head coach publicly throw shade at old strength coach by declaring everything the new guy does to be superior. Bonus points if the new workouts involve sledgehammers or tractor tires.
• New strength coach posts before and after photos on social media that feature (on the left) a ripped dude with a six-pack and (on the right) a slightly more ripped dude with a six-pack.
• Players claim they are in the best shape of their lives and that sledgehammer workouts have made them closer than ever.
I kid, but this is one of our lazier story tropes. But the reason you see these stories so frequently is that a strength coach is critically important. He’s probably the second-most important person in the organization behind the head coach. “In the world of college football today, it’s the most important hire,” says Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, who lost Frank Wintrich to UCLA this offseason and replaced him with former Arizona State strength coach Shawn Griswold.
The strength coach is with the players more than anyone else on the football staff. He has to be part motivator, part psychologist and part parent. So yes, I absolutely believe that converting from a subpar strength program to a good one is worth multiple wins. But that doesn’t mean every school that changed strength coaches will get those gains.
You’ve seen a lot this offseason about former Texas Tech strength coach Bennie Wylie joining former co-worker Lincoln Riley’s staff at Oklahoma. Wylie is a very good strength coach. But he’ll have to be great to get the kind of results former Oklahoma strength coach Jerry Schmidt got during his 18 years in Norman. There wasn’t anything wrong with Oklahoma’s strength program. Schmidt simply left to work for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.
Dan mentioned Florida, which did have some room for improvement. Last year, a group of Florida players paid for private speed training from former Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery. Former Gators coach Jim McElwain didn’t see this as the indictment of the strength program that it was. New coach Mullen brought strength coach Nick Savage with him from Mississippi State. We’re hearing all the usual stuff from Florida players, but we won’t know if it’s true until we see them on the field. If Savage’s program is truly better, it might be worth an extra two or three wins for a program that severely underperformed its talent level last season.
From @AuburnElvis: Imagine CFB allowed an Olympic compensation model for athletes. How insane would the Alabama QB controversy be if players could be funded and de-funded on the whim of fans? Wouldn't that chaos drive coaches like Nick Saban to the NFL?
It would be pretty wild. But do you know what else is wild? A group of competitors in a particular marketplace—in this case the marketplace for college football players—colluding to arbitrarily cap the compensation of the labor force in that marketplace. Heck, that’s probably illegal under the Sherman Act. And yet it’s exactly what happens in major college sports.
The report on college basketball issued Wednesday by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was mostly disappointing because it still didn’t address the real problem (that the NCAA’s rules have created a thriving black market), but Rice did make an excellent point when she mentioned how confusing it is that some athletes are allowed to be paid by their national Olympic committees for winning medals or allowed to go on Dancing With The Stars, while others aren’t allowed to profit in any way beyond their scholarship from their athletic endeavors.
Depending on how Jenkins v. NCAA shakes out, schools may either choose or be required to open up more possibilities for players to profit off their name, image and likeness rights. What Auburn Elvis refers to in his question is my theory that this inevitably would lead to boosters paying players directly. The difference is that he thinks this is a bad thing and I don’t.
The first few years of such a system would be odd. Some players would get far more than they’re worth until boosters realized that 18-year-olds tend to be shaky investments. Would a quarterback stop getting extra money if he got benched? Maybe. But guess what? If he’d like to keep making more than his scholarship, he could try playing better.
Would it drive coaches like Nick Saban to the NFL? Maybe. But as long as schools are paying in the neighborhood of $7 million a year to good coaches, there will be a deep pool of coaches from which to choose, and those coaches will be willing to work in whatever system they have to so they can continue making $7 million a year.
This has always been one of the silliest arguments from those who want to maintain the status quo. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often says he wouldn’t want to work in a system that gives players the opportunity to make more money. That’s swell. I’ll happily take his seven-figure annual salary—and the possibility of eight-figure bonuses—and run the Big Ten under just about any rules structure. Millions of other people would, too. When the pay includes that many commas, there will never be a shortage of intelligent, capable people willing to take the jobs.