ORLANDO, Fla. — The day is muggy, the way they all are in Central Florida during the summer. It will rain later. You can smell it. Brandon Wimbush decides to sit outside the football facility anyway, tossing his pink backpack onto a chair without giving it another thought until coach Josh Heupel walks past and jokes it is time to get a new backpack.
The rapport between coach and quarterback comes easily, and in their brief interaction you can see why Wimbush felt so at home on his visit to the UCF campus in early January. It goes beyond Heupel, though. Wimbush raves about what this program has accomplished recently, his relationship with the other UCF quarterbacks, the offensive system and playing at a program where he is “not taking a step down.”
Five years ago, that idea would have been laughable. Nobody would have equated Notre Dame and UCF. Yet here we are: One of the most high-profile quarterback transfers in the country, from one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country, chose to play for the rabble-rousing, upstart Knights.
Not only does that speak to the back-to-back undefeated regular-seasons UCF has produced, it speaks to the belief the talent is there for much, much more to come.
“These guys want to win and they want to play in the national championship,” Wimbush said. “I never had an opportunity to win a conference championship, and that’s something that’s on these guys’ minds. I had to get adapted to that. It’s good to be around that type of culture.”
Wimbush came to UCF ultimately to start again, and those chances seemed to increase after Darriel Mack Jr. got hurt over the summer in an undisclosed non-football activity, preventing him from being ready for the start of the season. As it stands, Wimbush is the most experienced among the healthy quarterbacks on the roster.
Though Heupel has yet to announce a starter between Wimbush, redshirt freshman Quadry Jones and true freshman Dillon Gabriel, Wimbush is the favorite to take the first snap Aug. 29 against Florida A&M. With McKenzie Milton out while he recovers from a gruesome leg injury, many believe UCF’s success this season is largely dependent on whether Wimbush has made enough improvements as a passer.
“One of the things we wanted to work with him on were some fundamental things to help him become as consistent as we need him to be, and as he wants to be,” Heupel said. “There’s some subtle things between his footwork, shoulder level, the way he grips the ball, a lot of different things that are all building blocks to get him to where we want to be when we open the season, if he’s our starter.”
Let’s start with the way he grips the ball.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby explained, “He was really tight with his two middle fingers. They were actually touching each other. So putting a little width in between those and where he’s at on the laces has helped him. Holding the football consistently and having it evenly spaced throughout your hand is a big thing. He has huge hands, but now he’s able to position the ball in his hand to be evenly distributed and that gives him a chance for it to come off the same way every time.”
Lebby and Heupel have also emphasized body position and made slight changes to his footwork, all in line with the way they teach fundamentals to all the quarterbacks at UCF.
“Sometimes, it’s the underneath things where you have to be more precise with your footwork. It was good to have a new voice,” Wimbush said. “You have the same voice for four years, those guys up at Notre Dame did a tremendous job of helping me get back to where I needed to be, and coming down here and hearing it differently can make a world of difference for a quarterback for sure.”
Wimbush views his opportunity at UCF as a fresh start, calling his time at Notre Dame, “like a love-hate thing for me, but moreso love. I got what I wanted to get out of my experience up there, which is that degree and some of the relationships that I built. And I got to play four years of damn good football, so I can’t knock it at all.”
Still, Wimbush admits going through last season was difficult. He says the decision the coaching staff made to bench him after three games in favor of Ian Book blindsided him. In those three starts, he made his share of mistakes, throwing one touchdown to four interceptions, and the Irish failed to score more than 24 points in any of those games.
“They had a man-to-man conversation with me, and they told me it’s a business,” Wimbush said. “I was disappointed, but that happens in the business world. You’ve got to take a step back and re-evaluate things.”
Wimbush took his fair share of criticism throughout his 17 career starts at Notre Dame, especially on social media. As one of the top recruits in the country in 2015, the expectation level was sky high from the moment he stepped on campus. It only rose once he became the starter in 2017.
“You don’t know how to set your own expectations, either,” Wimbush said. “You’re listening to someone else. You start reading things and you start internalizing things other people are saying about you, and that’s not the way to go. It throws you off because you’re like, ‘I’m not living up to what this person thinks.’ But what do they know? No one knows what’s going on in the locker room. I’ve come to learn that.”
It was that first year as a starter his friend gave him a purple bracelet with the words “You Got This” written on it. He still wears it. Still, it felt harder and harder to get through the season after he got benched.
Wimbush tried to support Book as much as he could and then went out and won the last game he started — against Florida State in November. At that point, it was fairly obvious he needed a change, but he also wanted another opportunity to start. Heupel and Lebby didn’t have to sell Wimbush on much. They told him he would have the opportunity to compete for a starting job. In return, Wimbush would give the UCF quarterbacks room the veteran leader it needed with Milton unable to play this year.
“He’s mature, very charismatic, very engaging, professional and very purposeful in the way he works every day,” Heupel says. “That was important for us to get inside this program.”
Wimbush says he felt an immediate connection with the UCF quarterbacks when he arrived on campus, even though that can make for an awkward situation. Everyone in the UCF quarterbacks room wants to win the job as badly as the new guy coming in from Notre Dame.
Wimbush handled the transition the only way he could — he was personable, honest and ingratiated himself with his teammates. “Brandon’s got a great personality,” Lebby says. “I think he’s a big-hearted guy that likes to be around his teammates. I do think he did a really good job walking into a tough situation and finding ways to make it work while finding ways to compete every single day against himself and against everybody else in the room.”
If Wimbush wins the job and keeps it, he has big plans. Though reality says another undefeated regular season will not get UCF into the College Football Playoff, Wimbush refuses to give up on winning the ultimate prize.
He has no choice but to believe. This is his last shot, after all.
“I know I can do some good things on that football field and impact a team more than anyone’s seen me do so far in my career,” Wimbush said. “I know I can go help this team win a national championship. I know that for a fact. I’m not shy to say it. If I can get to that potential for myself, we’ll have an exciting year.”