Notre Dame's 19 For '19: No. 1, Quarterback Ian Book
WHY IAN BOOK IS RANKED NO. 1 IN THIS COUNTDOWN.
We tried, but couldn’t do it.
It was too predictable to make Book No. 1, but there was no recourse.
First is his value. Last year his No. 17 finish nationally in passing efficiency (154.0) was the best in the nine-year Brian Kelly era, surpassing DeShone Kizer’s 150.1 as a sophomore in 2015 during a 10-3 campaign. Book’s mark was highlighted by a school record 68.15 completion percentage, which broke the previous standard of 68.0 set by Jimmy Clausen in 2009.
As it stands now, Book’s 147.3 career rating overall in passing efficiency is third on the all-time Fighting Irish chart, behind Kevin McDougal’s 156.7 from 1990-93 and Kizer’s 147.7 in 2015-16. In fourth place is Jarious Jackson (1996-99) at 145.7. Book also displayed his nimbleness with 280 yards rushing in 2018.
Next, his emergence also played a significant role in the 12-0 regular that earned a berth into the four-team College Football Playoff. In the three games prior to Book taking over as the starter, Notre Dame averaged 23.3 points per game. In Book’s starts the rest of the regular season, that figure ballooned to 36.7.
A third factor is the crucial question “how would his absence affect the team?” While sophomore backup Phil Jurkovec might possess the higher ceiling down the road, offensive coordinator Chip Long summed up the current quarterback status at the end of spring by bluntly stating “one’s (Book) on advanced calculus, the other one is still getting past algebra right now.”
However, there have been two consistent patterns at quarterback in the Kelly era. The first is that — take heart, Mr. Jurkovec — the reserve has many times stolen the show or helped save a season:
• Current quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees stepped in as the freshman starter in 2010 after a 4-5 start and helped the Irish to a surprising 4-0 finish in 2010. Two years later, he came off the bench four times to help Notre Dame to a victory during a 12-0 regular season campaign.
• To shake up matters and help end a four-game losing streak, Malik Zaire received his first start in the 2014 Music City Bowl, and promptly earned MVP honors in a 31-28 win versus LSU.
• After Zaire suffered a season ending injury in game 2 of the 2015 campaign, Kizer came out of nowhere as a sophomore, despite a disappointing spring, and thrived during a 10-1 start. Plus his touchdown run put Notre Dame ahead 36-35 at Pac 12 champ with 30 seconds left.
• Last year it was Book who supplanted incumbent Brandon Wimbush at quarterback, although that actually might have begun in the 2018 Citrus Bowl when he came off the bench to rally the Irish to a 21-17 victory versus LSU.
That is the good news in the Kelly regime at quarterback.
The bad news is that not once in his tenure has a quarterback flourished or not eventually been supplanted as the second-year starter: Dayne Crist after just one half in 2011, Everett Golson’s ineligibility in 2013 and late season slump in 2014, Kizer’s lower efficiency and fourth quarter travails during a 4-8 finish in 2016, and Wimbush getting replaced last season.
Book taking a step back or not progressing from his strong 2018 performance would become a severe hindrance to Notre Dame’s CFP hopes. It might also jeopardize the opportunity to finish in the top 10 in back-to-back years for the first time since 1992-93.
WHERE IS BOOK’S STATUS ENTERING 2019 SEASON?
Like every other Notre Dame quarterback who has ever come off a strong campaign, Book is in the conversation as a viable Heisman Trophy contender.
However, there also is some skepticism about whether he belongs in the same class at quarterback as the top-tier CFP favorites. When you look at the quarterbacks of the four Playoff teams last year, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray was the No. 1 overall pick this past spring, while some projections have Alabama’s Tu’a Tagovailoa to be No. 1 in 2020 and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to be No. 1 in 2021.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Jake Fromm — another projected future first round pick — and Ohio State’s Josh Fields (via Georgia) were five-star prospects. The three-star Book did not arrive with similar fanfare or with as esteemed physical qualities, which is what will make his leadership and growth to maximize his own skill set more vital in 2019.
In the fickle world of athletics, it didn’t take long for the 6-0 1/8, 208-pound Book’s stellar 2018 regular season campaign to suddenly become a little overshadowed by the 30-3 collapse in the CFP to Clemson. He completed only 17 of 34 passes for a mere 160 yards, and also lost a fumble on a scramble. In defeat, questions about Book perhaps leaving the pocket too soon, missing some open looks or problems connecting on the deep ball came more to the forefront.
Suddenly, it also gets pointed out that the impressive regular season stats were accumulated because no opposing Irish defense ranked higher than 47th (Syracuse), and most of them were between No. 55 (Stanford) and No. 117 (Navy).
Regardless, Book earned the right to be one of the eight Spring/Winter Accountability Team ( SWAT) leaders on the team and, as a result, has been inspired to become more vocal with teammates.
“Ian’s not a particular loud and vocal guy, but he’s going to stand up when he needs to say something,” Kelly said. “He’s done that a couple of times, he was asked to do that, and it resonates quite well. He is a different leader than he was last year. He was just a quarterback at Notre Dame last year. He’s a leader in our program (this year). That’s a big difference.”
To reach a higher level in the college football food chain, Book recognizes that hitting on more home-run balls — or even doubles — will have to be upgraded. Last year Oklahoma was No. 1 with a 48.4 scoring average, Alabama was second at 45.6 and Clemson fourth at 44.3, while the Irish were a much more modest 41st at 31.4. Keeping the conservative passing attack likely won't elevate it appreciably.
“I want to test myself and I want to make those even harder throws in those smaller windows,” Book said . “That’s what it takes to be an elite offense and an elite quarterback. … I want to push the offense, push the guys, especially the receivers, be able to show them I can make some of those throws.”
Book responded with a superb spring, but the first real test comes at Georgia on Sept. 21.
“You can’t really tell in practice — I want to see it on game day,” Long said. “I want to see it when we’re playing elite teams. But he’s challenging himself. There hasn’t been a fear.… You’ve got to push yourself to do that to be considered an elite quarterback.”
WHAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED SUCCESSFUL INDIVIDUAL SEASON?
For starters, avoiding the "second year jinx." That would involve excelling from start to finish, playing well enough to finish in the top 10 of the Heisman balloting and to get drafted by the NFL and not have to return for a fifth season in 2020.
Those would be positive signs of both fulfilling his potential and, more importantly, Notre Dame finishing among the top 10 again, if not higher.
Last year the Fighting Irish relied much more on a veteran defense that was replete with experience. This year the onus will be more on the offense.
In today’s arsenals, top programs are rewriting school records in scoring — yet Notre Dame’s 37.6 single season standard from 1968 remains. With a seasoned offense guided by Book, that too should be challenged… and perhaps even eclipsed. But how it is achieved is also important. It can’t be about scoring 63 against New Mexico one week and 14 in a loss at Georgia the next week for a 38.5 average to "break the record.".
“It’s his time where he is the guy,” Long said. “Better command of the offense, consistency versus pressure and defeating pressure. More confidence attacking down the middle of the field, his deep balls, all-around game and leadership. That’s one thing I think he’s done a really nice job — just taking command of that offense and turning it loose.”