- When Brandon Wimbush leads the Notre Dame offense in its primetime opener against Michigan, it won't be the first time he'll be looking to avoid star Wolverines defensive lineman Rashan Gary.
In the biggest game of his high school career, Brandon Wimbush noticed a familiar face across the line of scrimmage. It was the nation’s premier defensive lineman, a surefire five-star even as a junior, the No. 1 overall prospect in his recruiting class—take your pick. Lining up at right defensive end for Paramus Catholic was 6’5”, 293-pound Rashan Gary, ready to wreak havoc.
Wimbush, the senior quarterback for St. Peter’s Prep bound for Notre Dame, checked out of the play, replacing it with the same quarterback run, but to the opposite side: power left, away from Gary. The ensuing 63-yard touchdown helped St. Peter’s win the NJSIAA Non-Public, Group 4 Championship that night at MetLife Stadium, a 34–18 victory that doubled as revenge on a Paramus Catholic team that beat the Marauders the year before. Wimbush’s quick thinking and smooth moves put the Marauders up 28–12 late in the third quarter on the way to the school’s first state title since 2005.
“Everybody was going crazy after that,” St. Peter’s Prep head coach Rich Hansen says. “When he came off to the sideline, I said, ‘Brandon why’d you check the play?’ And he went through the reasons why and I said, ‘Great job, great job.’ But then [wide receiver] Corey Caddle is laughing and he goes, ‘Coach, he checked the play because he’s afraid to run at Rashan.’ And I said, well that’s a good enough reason for me, I get it.”
Wimbush went 18 of 32 through the air for 167 yards, ran the ball 11 times for 158 yards and scored three touchdowns in the final game of his high school career. He was also sacked twice by Gary, the only sacks he took in the entire 2014 season.
He can comfortably laugh now when he thinks about it. He and Gary have known each other since middle school, growing up 45 minutes away—Wimbush from Teaneck, N.J., and Gary from Plainfield. They went to rival high schools, too, in the same division of the same private school conference. Sometimes they trained together with Wimbush’s teammate, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the two-time All-America, national champion at Alabama and 2018 first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins. That’s when Wimbush realized Gary was going to be big-time.
“It was like, ‘Who is this kid?’” Wimbush says. “He’s the biggest kid, fast, I was like whoa, you know what I mean? I knew he was going to be special.” Their moms talk regularly, which is how each player keeps up with what the other is doing. There’s no mystery about their respective plans for Sept. 1 in South Bend, of course: Wimbush will be trying to avoid Gary, while Gary will be trying to get up in his friend’s face and increase his sack total from four years ago.
“Twice or three times?” Gary recalls, laughing. “Nah, nah, I got him two times.”
Notre Dame and Michigan open the 2018 season by (sort of) renewing a storied rivalry. The series continues next fall in Ann Arbor, but despite ongoing discussions about future meetings, no further dates have been announced. The annual matchup ended in 2014, two years after Notre Dame exercised an opt-out clause in the contract, and the Fighting Irish beat the Wolverines in that final meeting, 31–0. Michigan holds a 24-17-1 edge in the all-time series, which goes back to 1887.
The season opener marks a big moment for Wimbush, especially. After an inconsistent debut season as a starter in which he completed 49.5% of his passes for 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, he needs to prove he’s developed a mental edge. The last time fans saw Wimbush, he had been relegated to the bench by head coach Brian Kelly in the second quarter of the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Backup quarterback Ian Book was the one who led Notre Dame to a thrilling 21–17 victory over LSU, capped by a magical, game-winning, 55-yard touchdown pass that receiver Miles Boykin caught with one hand. This offseason, Wimbush overcame national skepticism about his ceiling and a quarterback competition to earn back his starting spot for the opener, but Kelly said last week that Book could also play against Michigan depending on how the game goes.
On the biggest stage to start a new season, Wimbush has a lot to prove. And for better or worse, he has to face one of college football’s best pass rushers, who happens to be an old friend from back home.
“I knew we’d see Rashan again in the coming years,” Wimbush said. “I’m excited to play him again. He’s a beast, a heck of a player.”
Wimbush likes that he has a familiarity with Gary. He likes that his new left tackle Liam Eichenberg and starting right tackle Robert Hainsey played against him in high school, too. He watched film from Michigan’s Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina during the offseason and picked up on some of Gary’s more developed nuances.
“We watched him play, but he just clotheslines, but doesn’t even really tackle [South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley] and the quarterback really goes down hard,” Wimbush said. “He’s just so powerful and he runs like a 4.6, so it’s not like my zone reads can be a little iffy having him be able to play the running back as well as play me. So it’s going to be tricky.”
Gary has been keeping tabs on Wimbush, too.
“He could throw the ball 70 yards down the field every game,” Gary says. “You heard about him after every game, basically. He’s able to extend plays, get out of the pocket. You gotta contain him because if not, he can be a problem.”
St. Peter’s and Paramus also played for the 2013 state championship, although Gary wasn’t on the team then. He transferred before the 2014 school year from Scotch Plains-Fanwood, which initially challenged the move before the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association, accusing Paramus Catholic of recruiting violations. Scotch Plains suspected that Gary and his mother, Jennifer Coney, were called by players’ parents and other people associated with the program, including Jabrill Peppers, who went to Paramus Catholic and later starred at Michigan before being drafted by the Cleveland Browns. But the NJSIAA Eligibility Appeals Committee unanimously determined that the allegations couldn’t be proven, and Gary was declared eligible to attend and play for Paramus.
Gary’s high school coach was Chris Partridge, who is now the special teams coordinator and safeties coach at Michigan after being hired to a recruiting role in January 2015. Paramus currently has three alums at Michigan, including starting right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty and reserve linebacker Drew Singleton. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has four players from St. Peter’s Prep, including freshmen rover Shayne Simon and twins on the defensive line, Jayson and Justin Ademilola.
Against Paramus Catholic as a junior in the 2013 title game, Wimbush threw for 60 yards in the first quarter but was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the second. St. Peter’s was forced to change its no-huddle offense to a system based on Wildcat principles and lost, 13–6. Wimbush took the loss hard, then used it to fuel him to lead the Marauders to a near-perfect season as a senior (their lone loss was to IMG Academy, led by current Florida State starting QB Deondre Francois) and a return to the championship game.
“I remember him talking about it every single day,” Hansen says. “We had two weeks to prepare for the finals, and I remember every day my biggest concern was he was going to press too hard, he was going to push too hard and try to make up for the year before. I remember our pregame practice he was so sharp and so on point. I turned to my offensive coordinator and I said buckle up, you’re about to see something special, he’s ready. I think a lot of that came from [the idea that] he let people down the year before when he was hurt.”
On Dec. 5, 2014, it was cold and rainy at MetLife Stadium, but more than 25,000 people came to watch. There were college prospects all over the field. In addition to Wimbush, Gary and Fitzpatrick, St. Peter’s Prep had Caddle (Fordham) and wide receiver Kolton Huber (Penn); Paramus had defensive lineman Kwanii Figueroa (Grand Valley State), defensive back Najee Clayton (Western Michigan) and linebacker Saleem Brightwell (Pitt).
“It was an electric night,” Hansen says.
After struggling through his first season at the helm of Notre Dame’s offense in 2017, how will Wimbush respond with less room for error in year two? This week, Kelly said the Irish’s offensive play-calling this fall will be “much more about calling the offense for who Brandon Wimbush is rather than who we want him to be.” At the same time, the staff has confidence in Book, and if they feel like he gives the Irish a better chance to win, Wimbush could find himself back on the bench.
That’s not an ideal situation for a newly crowned starter. It also isn’t ideal that he opens against Gary and a Michigan defense that only lost two starters from last year’s unit, which finished third in the country in yards per game allowed.
Gary, entering his junior year with preseason All-America and 2019 NFL draft buzz, has different expectations to fulfill. Michigan’s defensive line is the strength of the team, and he’s one of its leaders. After finishing his sophomore season with 66 tackles (12 for loss) and six sacks, how will he be more impactful?
Just like Wimbush won’t let himself forget the 2013 title game, Gary holds his own grudges about ’14: He remembers that he didn’t like losing. So how many times does he plan to sack his friend in the rematch?
“Stay tuned and watch,” Gary says. “I don’t like to speak on it.”