When Ian Book left for spring break with one official team practice under his belt this past March, the Notre Dame grad senior wasn’t really planning on taking much of a break at all.
There is just too much at stake for Book and his Fighting Irish teammates heading into the 2020 football season, Book’s third as the starting quarterback.
Considered by many as a top 10 preseason team, Notre Dame is seeking its fifth 10-plus win season in its last six, its second College Football Playoff appearance in the past three years and its first national championship since 1988.
Propping up those lofty hopes is Book himself, a little-known, three-star recruit from El Dorado, Calif., who Notre Dame plucked away from Washington State’s 2016 recruiting class and who overtook the starting job from the more heralded Brandon Wimbush in 2018 and who planted his flag there by winning his first 10 starts.
So, after a couple R&R days with friends in Las Vegas, Book spent the rest of his spring break in Omaha, Neb., of all places. That’s where former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels lives and tutors up-and-coming QB prodigies for their college seasons and potential NFL futures.
That’s how much this season means to Book, who is 20-3 as a starter and was hoping to pin another 14 wins to his résumé in 2020 (before the math changed with a reshuffled schedule in late July). That’s why he chose to work over spring break.
“Then we all got the call,” Book remembered. “I was a day away from flying back to South Bend. So, I switched my flight and the next thing you know I was home for three months.”
No spring practice. No building chemistry with new teammates. No polishing of new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ schemes. No return to campus to finish the semester.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw all that out the window, leaving the 2020 season very much in doubt.
“It’s definitely different, and I’ve had to adjust, but I’m just trying to stay positive,” Book said last month, weeks after ND’s football players were finally allowed to return to campus in mid-June for workouts amid strict spread-prevention protocols.
“I was able to throw every other day and I was able to hang out with my family, which I haven’t been able to do for a while so I just kept telling myself, ‘What I do at home for these three months will definitely pay off when the season starts,’ whenever that may be.
“So, I didn’t want to let up.”
During that time, Book took two classes online and met as often as he could on Zoom calls with coaches, particularly Rees, his quarterbacks coach the past three seasons.
Rees was promoted to offensive coordinator in January, replacing Chip Long, whose December ouster happened prior to Notre Dame’s Camping World Bowl victory in December over Iowa State.
Since Book’s three-month detour to Northern California, the Power 5 conferences have mostly moved to conference-only scheduling. Notre Dame has been absorbed into the ACC for this season, with a single non-conference option.
Training camp is on the horizon. While the schedule is being adjusted, it looks as of now that there will be an 11-game regular season for Notre Dame with the opportunity to play in the ACC championship game if it finishes in the top two of the now 15-team race.
Even with all the moving parts, Book’s expectations for the season couldn’t be higher. Like other multi-year starters at Notre Dame, Book brings experience that has often translated into successful seasons for the Fighting Irish. Two former Notre Dame greats — Rick Mirer and Brady Quinn — believe Book is up to the challenge.
Mirer started three seasons for the Irish (1990-92) and Quinn four (2003-06). Between them they accounted for 57 wins as starters.
“Being the Notre Dame quarterback is like playing in the NFL in the attention and scrutiny you get,” said Quinn who was twice a Heisman Trophy finalist. “What I would tell (Book) is that no one is going to give you any excuses.
“When it comes down to you playing those games, nobody is going to think about COVID, nobody is going to think about who you lost. They’re just going to look at what you’re doing on the field and what the results are.”
Book’s results up to this point have been impressive. As a sophomore he took over for Wimbush to start against Wake Forest in 2018 and would end up throwing for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns for a passer rating of 154.0.
Last season he threw for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns.
He’s also proven dangerous with his legs, with 936 career rushing yards.
“He’s tough and willing to run and dive and all that stuff, but I think he’s a passer first,” Mirer said. “I respect how the team responded when he first started playing. It was like a light bulb went off.
“He’s a guy who made the best of an opportunity that a lot of people wanted to have. He’s exciting. He has a lot of energy and seems to play with a ton of heart. That’s the kind of guy who teams rally around.
“It’s nice to have him back again, and I just hope they get to play.”
Unlike Book, Mirer was one of the most heralded quarterbacks coming out of high school, in 1989. As a senior, the Parade All-American threw for nearly 4,000 yards while leading nearby Goshen High School to the 1988 4A Indiana state championship. He was also named the Gatorade Player of the Year.
When Mirer got to campus in 1989, Notre Dame was the defending national champion and had a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in senior Tony Rice.
Mirer’s role as a freshman would be that of understudy, as the Irish went 12-1 and finished second in the final national rankings to Miami.
Mirer got his chance as a sophomore, with the Irish opening the 1990 season ranked No. 1 and playing No. 4 Michigan under the then-temporary lights at Notre Dame Stadium.
Mirer ran in for a touchdown on his first drive and later fired the game-winning touchdown pass to Adrian Jarrell in the closing minutes of a 28-24 thriller.
In his first two seasons, Mirer led the Irish to records of 9-3 (lost 10-9 to No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl) and 10-3 (beat No. 3 Florida 39-28 in the Sugar Bowl).
In head coach Lou Holtz’s offense, Mirer managed a much more conservative system than what is the norm today, and his numbers reflect that. He threw for 1,824 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore and 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior.
Still, after two years under center, Mirer had caught the attention of NFL scouts and investigated the prospect of going pro early.
“Leaving early was something guys did back then — a little less than they do now — so it was something we at least had to look at,” Mirer said. “My feeling was that we had all the pieces necessary to be in contention for a national championship, and I didn’t want to miss out on that.”
Notre Dame was loaded in 1992, with tailback Reggie Brooks and fullback Jerome Bettis carrying the load. And there were other weapons, Mirer was quick to point out, in running back Ray Zellers, wide receiver Lake Dawson and tight end Irv Smith.
“We played a little more wide open my junior year and scored a lot of points,” Mirer said. “Senior year it was just the fact that I knew, and my class knew, that this was it. We were just a little more protective instead of aggressive.
“Coach Holtz is a pretty conservative guy. It would have been interesting to just see us play full throttle like we had nothing to lose, but we had something to lose. I wish we would have had a playoff back then that would have forced us to play a little bit of a different style.
“But we just took them one at a time and methodically kind of went about it. We didn’t quite get to the end goal we were shooting for, but we were close.”
An opening week tie at home against Michigan in Mirer’s senior year zapped some of Notre Dame’s energy, but it was a week five home loss to No. 18 Stanford, 33-16, that essentially squashed the Irish national title hopes.
Notre Dame did go on to win the rest of its games, the last a 28-3 drilling of No. 4 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to finish 10-1-1 and No. 4 in the final poll.
As for Mirer, his numbers lined up more with his sophomore season, throwing for 1,876 yards and 15 touchdowns. Still, he would go on to be selected No. 2 overall by the Seattle Seahawks in the 1993 NFL draft. He was the AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1993 and he would end up playing 11 NFL seasons, with multiple teams.
These days Mirer lives in the San Diego area and owns a winery, Mirror Napa Valley vineyards. He and his wife Stephanie have three sons. His son Morrison plays lacrosse at Notre Dame.
Like Mirer, Quinn was surrounded by good players and was able to elevate the stature of the program.
He came to Notre Dame in 2003 — Tyrone Willingham’s second year as head coach — highly recruited out of Dublin, Ohio. It took Quinn just two games to see the field for the first time, and he earned his first start in week four against Purdue.
In that game Quinn completed 29 of 59 passes for 297 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions in a 23-10 loss. He would go on to start each of Notre Dame’s next 45 games and claim most of its passing records along the way.
But it was the arrival of head coach Charlie Weis in 2005, ahead of Quinn’s junior year, that was the true turning point for both Quinn and the program.
The Irish were coming off disappointing seasons of 5-7 and 6-6, and Weis — who won Super Bowls as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots those years — was brought to South Bend to right the ship.
“That season there was so much unknown,” Quinn explained. “It really took those first couple games for us to realize that we’re better than we realize.
“Even though we had experience, there was still this sense of urgency — not only because of what we wanted to accomplish as a group, but for wanting to play to a standard that our new head coach was asking of us.”
Notre Dame made its statement early in 2005, winning 42-21 at No. 23 Pittsburgh in the opener, then going into the Big House and upsetting No. 3 Michigan, 17-10.
Quinn and the newly energized Irish offense was off and running, and passing, and flourishing. Even in a 44-41 overtime loss in ND’s home opener against Michigan State the next week, it was clear that this Notre Dame team was different.
In that game, late in the third quarter, Notre Dame trailed the Spartans, 38-17.
“At one point, (Weis) looked at me on the sidelines and said, ‘You and I are the only two who believe we’re going to win this game,’” Quinn recalled. “I looked back at him and was thinking the same thing, that this was going to be a great opportunity and we’re going to get to open things up and throw the football. And I like those underdog circumstances.”
After that conversation, Quinn connected on three straight touchdown passes, the last a 4-yarder to Jeff Samardzija with 2:31 left in regulation to tie the game at 38 and force overtime.
The next day Quinn remembers dissecting the film with Weis and being reassured that he was well on his way to another level.
“Coach said to me, ‘You couldn’t have done anything more than what I asked you to do. I have great confidence in you going forward the rest of the season. Whether the odds are against us or not, I believe in you and I believe we can get it done.’
“That moment for me helped me believe that his faith and confidence in me was genuine and that with our team’s ability to overcome deficits, we’d always have a shot to win at the end of games.”
Notre Dame would finish 9-3 that year and lose 34-20 to a loaded Ohio State team in the Fiesta Bowl in a game that was closer than most people seem to remember.
Quinn and his teammates would also shine in a heartbreaking 34-31 loss to No. 1 USC in the “Bush Push” game at Notre Dame Stadium.
“That was the one where you realize you can play with these great teams,” Quinn said. “That USC team was one of the greatest teams in college football history. Then you go out and do it, and see how close you were and could have won it. That was eye opening to us to know that we had the capability to play with anyone if we execute the game plan we had set for us.”
By the end of that season Quinn had thrown for a school record 3,919 yards, tossed 32 touchdown passes, had 158.4 passer rating and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
In his fourth year as a starter, Quinn picked right up where he left off, throwing for 3,436 yards, a school-record 37 touchdowns and placed third in the Heisman vote.
Quinn was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns in 2007 and floated around the NFL for eight seasons before retiring, having played in 24 games. He now works as an NFL and college football analyst and is pursuing his MBA.
What’s in store next for Book has yet to be determined. If the season proceeds and concludes, he will have had the opportunity to become one of the most successful and accomplished quarterbacks in Notre Dame history.
He currently is sixth on Notre Dame’s career passing list with 6,118 yards, just ahead of Mirer and behind Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, Rees, Ron Powlus and Steve Beuerlein. Chances are good that Book will catch No. 2 Clausen at 8,148, but long that he’ll eclipse Quinn at 11,762.
Book is also fourth on Notre Dame’s career touchdown pass list with 57. If he throws 38 in 2020, he would tie Quinn at 95 and break Quinn’s single-season record of 37.
He is also nine wins away from tying the all-time win mark for Notre Dame starting quarterbacks and 10 from breaking it outright.
And if somebody had told Book when he got to South Bend that he’d be in those historic neighborhoods ...
“I don’t think I would have believed them,” Book said. “But, I came here to play and I planned on playing. I never thought that I wouldn’t play here. But to be up there with those great names is a true honor.
“I do always joke around at practice (with Rees) that I want to beat all his records.”
If that’s to happen, it’s not lost on Book that Rees will have played a heavy hand in his own historic reshuffling.
Like Book, when Rees came to Notre Dame as a three-star recruit out of Lake Forest, Ill., few had high expectations for him. But when starter Dayne Crist was lost for the year in the ninth game of the 2010 season, Rees took over and finished with wins in his three starts to end the season.
After going 8-4 in 2011, Rees was replaced as the starter by Everett Golson in 2012, yet played often during critical times in games that year, helping lead Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.
By the end of the 2013 season, Rees had started 30 games and played in 45.
It’s that kind of experience moving into the role as Notre Dame’s primary play-caller, that both Quinn and Mirer believe can have a big impact on Book and the Irish offense.
“I think he’s the perfect guy for the job, considering his involvement the last several years (as quarterbacks coach) and the fact he’s been in the fire with his guy,” Mirer said.
“I don’t know how much different the offense will look, but I’d like to see some rhythm and some pace. I think that because he’s been in that spot he’d be perfect to call plays.
“Tommy understands what his guy is seeing. Not that others wouldn’t, but I think it’s a little different. They will look at him and say, ‘You can say anything you want, because you stood here and did it, and took the shots and made the plays and did things under pressure.”
Quinn said he could recognize Rees’ influence on the offense when he called plays as the then-interim offensive coordinator in Notre Dame’s 33-9 win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
“One of the things you saw was there was just a little more balance and comfort,” Quinn said. “It seemed like Ian felt more comfortable in that one game the way Tommy called it, and that they had a pretty strong idea of the plays they were running.
“Tommy is going to be great for Ian. You’re going to see Tommy running an offense and Tommy doing things to the strengths of the players.”
Book said that Rees’ strength as a coach is putting players in the right position to be successful and agrees that Rees’ knowledge and experience as a quarterback will only help him.
“I find it easier to learn from someone who’s played quarterback,” Book said. “And then you find someone who’s played quarterback at Notre Dame, where I’m playing that just lines up perfectly.
“I can’t wait for this last year with him. He knows my strengths. He’s been with me the whole time.”
That time will wind down this season, one way or another. Book just hopes that it’s on the field, playing Clemson, playing Boston College, playing Florida State, playing for a national championship.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have something to say about that, but in the meantime, Book is continuing to prepare to meet the expectations of one of the most anticipated, promising and uncertain seasons Notre Dame has ever had.
“I’m looking forward to this season the most I ever have for a football season,” Book said. “I feel (more) motivated than ever before. It’s truly my last ride.”