DALLAS — Brandon Wimbush liked Ian Book the first time they met. It was during Book’s official visit to Notre Dame in the fall of 2015, which was Wimbush’s freshman year. Book wore a camouflage snap-back hat. Wimbush thought it was cool. Boom, instant friendship.
Their relationship has evolved since then, sort of in an unlikely way. Wimbush was Notre Dame’s starting quarterback last season, leading his team to a 10–3 finish. He earned the job again heading into 2018 following an offseason battle with Book and Notre Dame won its first three games. Book remained the supportive backup. But the offense fell into a lull and wins felt like losses. That’s when Brian Kelly made the difficult decision to bench Wimbush in favor of Book before the fourth game against Wake Forest. The move was energizing for the program, the offense opened up, and now the Fighting Irish are preparing to play Clemson on Dec. 29 in the program’s first trip to the College Football Playoff.
Wimbush was devastated when he lost his job. He’d done everything possible to keep it—he went 12–3 as a starter (he’s officially 13–3 after playing against Florida State in Week 11), worked overtime with coaches, even traveled to the West Coast to fix his mechanics. Naturally, a challenging few weeks followed. He vented to family and roommates and tried to stay positive. Eventually, he accepted his new role as backup in order to “do whatever is best for the team,” Wimbush says.
One thing that’s never wavered is the bond between the quarterbacks. This isn’t one of those keep your friends close, enemies closer situations. They may be each other’s fiercest competitors, but they’re also actually best friends. They go bowling, grab dinner and sometimes room together on road trips. Any time Wimbush sees Book’s mom at a game, he gives her a hug.
“I think it’s rare,” Brian Kelly said of their friendship Wednesday. “I think you can be cordial, I think you can be respectful, I think that you can know the boundaries and limits as it relates to keeping the team from picking sides, and I think that’s generally what happens in most instances. In other words, it doesn’t go the other way where it becomes toxic.
“Their relationship is unusual. They’re just unique young men in a sense that they really care about each other and they’re selfless. So it’s rare. I’ve been doing it a long time and I’ve not seen it before.”
These days the quarterback transfer market is a hot storyline. Lose your job, leave the program. News leaked this week that Wimbush is considering playing his final season of eligibility elsewhere. He’s had “preliminary” discussions with Kelly and is “torn” about the decision. Wimbush said Wednesday he has options, but will wait until after the season to entertain the idea further.
“I don’t want to be a distraction,” Wimbush said. “But I’m excited for what’s to come and what lies ahead.”
Quarterback changes have affected locker rooms for good and for bad, and Notre Dame has experienced both. When DeShone Kizer replaced Malik Zaire in 2016, the locker room split. That didn’t help the already low team morale and the Irish proceeded to go 4–8.
“It was awful,” captain Drue Tranquill recalls. “It was everything you hope to stay away from in regard to team camaraderie and togetherness. It was like there were two different camps almost and maybe the guys in the locker room wouldn’t admit to that, but looking back, that’s kind of what happened.
“This situation has been totally different. Maybe that comes with experience, we all experienced ‘16. Ian and Brandon, they’re just always trying to make each other better, always talking, always dapping each other up. Some guys on the team are better friends with Brandon, but they equally support Ian and it’s been great for us.”
Wimbush and Book were on that 2016 team and it was important to them that this year’s QB switch not be divisive. Ask anyone in the program and they’ll say that was never a concern because Wimbush and Book weren’t going to let competition get in the way of their friendship. Plus they understand the bigger picture.
“We were friends before any of this started,” Book said. “I like him for more than the football player he is and I think he likes me the same, for more than the football player I am. Life goes on. We both want to win on Saturdays, we both love Notre Dame, we both have the same goals.”
None of this is to downplay how difficult things have been for Wimbush. He used to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame and now he’s not—his friend is. He described this season as “different” and being “a little more down than up and down” for him personally. He couldn’t be happier for the team’s success and his part in it, but it’s not the same.
After playing backup for six games, Wimbush was called on to start against Florida State—which also happened to be Senior Night—while Book nursed a rib and kidney injury from the previous game against Northwestern. Wimbush underwent a transition period getting his mindset back to starter mode that week, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, he says, regardless of experience level.
“You try to say you’re preparing as the starter, but it’s never as intense as when you’re in the position that I was in,” Wimbush said. “It’s definitely a different mentality you have to endure for that week and knowing that there’s a lot on the line. You want to come in and prepare as best you can and make sure that you’re not letting anybody down and fulfilling the standard we set at Notre Dame, which is the next man in has to play at the level the guy before you was playing at.
“That’s what I tried to do, I tried my best.”
Wimbush completed 12 of 25 passes for 130 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions, while adding 68 rushing yards, and Notre Dame cruised to a 42–13 victory over FSU to move to 10–0. He knows he’s one play away from stepping into the playoff semifinal against Clemson, too, and has been practicing with that in mind for the past month.
Wimbush wants to play in the NFL. Whether staying at Notre Dame one more year or taking advantage of a graduate transfer gets him there is to be determined. After that, he has high aspirations in the business world, already dabbling in an asset management company venture started by him, Notre Dame basketball player Rex Pflueger and some of their friends. Until those things come to fruition, he’s come to terms with his current job, backing up his buddy.
“I think he’s been immaculate all year,” Wimbush said of Book. “I can’t speak highly enough of him and the way he’s stepped into his role and produced. I think we have a great surrounding cast as an offense, so I think everyone plays a part, but I think Ian has done a great job of handling all the circumstances and all the scenarios that we’ve been faced with this year.”
In his own way, Wimbush has too.