Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s Top 25 Most Important Players: No. 1, Quarterback Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s Top 25 Most Important Players: No. 1, Ian Book

BlueandGold.com has spent the month of July counting down the 25 most pivotal figures whom Notre Dame will rely on to get back to the College Football Playoff in 2020, if the season is held.

This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals that need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to facilitate the Fighting Irish goal of climbing toward championship timber.

Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)? The players and their ranking were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com writers.

At No. 1 in the countdown is quarterback Ian Book, who was the unanimous top selection among all five voters.

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Why Book Is Ranked No. 1

Book can affect the ceiling of Notre Dame’s offense more than any other player.

That’s due in part to his position, but also because of his play last year. The most common version of Book in the season’s first two months was an up-and-down quarterback with skittish pocket presence. He left plays on the field not because he was simply missing an open target (though that happened at times), but because he didn’t throw the ball to the target.

The post-Michigan version, meanwhile, was a confident passer who threw with anticipation and let plays develop. Notre Dame scored at least 30 points in five straight games to end the year and hit 40 three times.

If Book’s 2020 season is more the former, Notre Dame’s going to find itself in the same position as its first half of 2019. A good team, but not a College Football Playoff contender. If his final six games are an indication of what is to come, the Irish are in business with a quarterback who can win games himself instead of not being a reason they lost. Notre Dame’s offense could break school records. With a strong defense to pair with it, Notre Dame is a real contender.

Put simply, the Irish will go where Book takes them.

Even in his first-half form, Book is a tolerable quarterback. He’s a legitimate dual threat who can avoid crushing mistakes and beat teams he’s supposed to beat. Even amid all the consternation around him, he threw just two interceptions in the first two months of the season. He ended the year as one of five quarterbacks with at least 3,000 passing yards, 400 rushing yards and 30 touchdown passes.

Book’s Status Entering The Season

Notre Dame has not had a three-year starter at quarterback since Jimmy Clausen from 2007-09. With no real challenger for his job, Book will be the first quarterback under head coach Brian Kelly to start for three seasons. He and first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have a strong bond from Rees’ last three years as the quarterbacks coach, and the bowl game was a brief but encouraging sample for the pair.

“I consider him a best friend, and at the same time, a coach,” Book said on NBC’s “Distanced Training” in May. “He knows how to switch from being a friend to coach and, ‘All right, it’s meeting time.’ He’ll get on me and five seconds later we’re fine.”

Book is a certain captain, a role he had last season. He was a Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Team (SWAT) leader this offseason.

When considering the ceiling for him and Notre Dame’s offense, it’s worth noting that Notre Dame was 13th nationally in scoring offense (36.8 points per game), 29th in yards per play (6.3), fifth in fewest turnovers (11), eighth in red-zone touchdown percentage (76.4) and 13th in plays of at least 20 yards (81).

The Irish fielded an above-average offense even with Book’s first-half problems and short-yardage struggles factored into the final numbers. They have the upside to be a top-10 offense that puts a scare in defensive coordinators each week with great instead of good quarterback play.

“Ian’s next step is really just being able to operate and get to the second and third reads in his progression smoothly,” Rees said in April. “It’s really about diagnosing things outside of your first read and outside of the obvious.”

Notre Dame fifth-year senior quarterback Ian Book
Notre Dame's offense will go where Book, a fifth-year senior, takes it. (Angela Driskell)

What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?

Another 34 to 6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 500 yards on the ground once again — or at least paces that equate to those numbers over a normal 13-game season — everyone in the Gug and watching on TV should be pleased. Some numbers beyond that, though, will determine his improvement.

Book’s completion rate fell from 68.2 in 2018 to 60.2 in 2019. His yards per attempt dropped from 8.4 to 7.6. Problems when pressured are to blame. Per Pro Football Focus, Book was 37-of-96 passing (38.5 percent) for 540 yards (5.6 yards per attempt) under pressure. A quarterback’s numbers under pressure are naturally going to be worse, but those were below average when compared to his peers.

One source of incompletions was an uptick in throwaways. Book threw the ball away 27 times, per PFF, more than double his 2018 total of 13. It was a troubling trend considering he was throwing behind PFF’s No. 2 pass-blocking unit. The seven players who started on the offensive line were credited with two sacks and 53 pressures.

Book finding more patience when under pressure will help Notre Dame sustain more drives. That will entail keeping his eyes downfield another half-second to make a throw instead of a toss into the stands. He can also help himself by staying in the pocket instead of bailing at the first sign of pressure.

Scrambles are good, but chunk passing plays are better, though Book’s out-of-pocket playmaking is one of his best attributes. Rees doesn’t want to curb it. Rees also cited deep ball accuracy and willingness to take shots as areas for growth.

“The deep ball was the thing last year,” Rees said. “And I think the deep ball was actually something that he improved on.”

Behind The Ranking

The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press poll. Five BlueandGold.com writers submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.

Book’s 125 points were the maximum anyone could earn.

Prior Top 25 Profiles

No. 2: Kyle Hamilton

No. 3: Liam Eichenberg

No. 4: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

No. 5: TaRiq Bracy

No. 6: Tommy Tremble

No. 7: Ade Ogundeji

No. 8: Daelin Hayes

No. 9: Braden Lenzy

No. 10: Drew White

No. 11 : Robert Hainsey

No. 12: Kevin Austin

No. 13: Jarrett Patterson

No. 14: Jafar Armstrong

No. 15: Nick McCloud

No. 16: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa

No. 17: Shaun Crawford

No. 18: Houston Griffith

No. 19: Lawrence Keys III

No. 20: Chris Tyree

No. 21: Aaron Banks

No. 22: Bennett Skowronek

No. 23: Tommy Kraemer

No. 24: Isaiah Pryor

No. 25: Kurt Hinish

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