The unknowns of Monday night don’t intimidate Ian Book.
Notre Dame’s senior quarterback will be tasked with dissecting Louisville’s new look defense. He’ll be asked to throw passes to a handful or wide receivers, tight ends and running backs with limited game experience. Book will even be receiving snaps from a center playing in his first-ever game at the position.
An offseason filled with challenges thrown at him by offensive coordinator Chip Long and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees has prepared Book for this moment — an 8 p.m. EDT kickoff at Cardinal Stadium on ESPN.
They challenged Book to push the ball down the field. They insisted he attempt throws outside of his comfort zone. Even in his struggles last season, Book never became frustrated.
“He’s pretty cool,” Rees said. “He doesn’t let his emotions get ahold of him too much.”
The process of improving on difficult throws could have been an exhausting one for Book. Even though he set a Notre Dame program record with a 68.2 percent completion rate in 2018, Book still had room for improvement. In trying to expand his arsenal of throws, he was going to fail at times.
“I did that and found where my limits are, where I feel comfortable,” Book said. “But I’m glad I pushed myself because I know there are throws now that I can make that maybe I didn’t try last year.
“So I’m not pulling away from it. But now I know exactly what I’m capable of doing. I want to do that in the game. There’s no reason to shy away from that.”
Long wants the Irish offense to be more explosive than it was a year ago. Notre Dame can do that in a number of ways, but Book improving on deeper throws may lead to the biggest gains.
As much as Book wants to insist he’s capable of throwing the ball down the field, he’ll need to show a more consistent ability to do so this season.
According to ND Insider’s film analysis, Book completed just 23.8 percent (5-of-21) of his throws more than 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in his nine starts last season. He completed 71 percent (206-of-290) of his throws 30 yards or shorter in those games.
“Anticipation and timing on those throws can help you a great deal, and that’s something we continue to work on,” Rees said. “Ian’s extremely accurate, and he’s always trying to make the perfect throw. Deep balls don’t always have to be the perfect throw. You have opportunities to let your guys make the play or run underneath it.”
Trusting his targets
Book’s connections with wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke were apparent last season. The two combined for 99 catches last year on throws from Book and Brandon Wimbush.
Claypool and Finke are back, but they both will have slightly different roles this season. Claypool moved over to the boundary wide receiver spot after Miles Boykin left for the NFL Draft. Finke, who has played in the slot most of his career, will move around more often after Michael Young’s broken collarbone.
No other wide receiver available to play in Monday’s season opener has caught a pass in his career. Sophomore Lawrence Keys III will likely make his debut in the starting lineup. Fellow sophomores Joe Wilkins Jr. and Braden Lenzy also redshirted last season. Senior wide receiver Javon McKinley’s next catch will be his first too.
Book still has confidence in his inexperienced targets. He said it’s weird to consider so many of them haven’t played much at Notre Dame.
“I feel like all those guys have played,” Book said. “They haven’t, but I feel like they have because they’ve worked so hard and I’ve been working with them for so long.”
Even with the sophomores set to play in their first game, Book has a relationship with them that spans back to last preseason. When Book was working as the No. 2 quarterback behind Wimbush, he threw plenty of passes to Keys, Wilkins and Lenzy.
“There is a comfort level there with him and the other guys,” Rees said. “We do such a good job with (wide receivers) coach (DelVaughn) Alexander and other position groups of getting extra work and getting work with the whole depth of that group, it doesn’t even feel like you’re throwing to somebody new. I haven’t seen it really impact us a whole lot.”
Junior running back Jafar Armstrong has more catches than any active player on Notre Dame’s roster after Claypool and Finke. He caught 14 passes last season. Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. is right behind Armstrong with 12 career catches.
The running backs should be active pass catchers early in the season for the Irish. At times in practice preseason, Notre Dame utilized formations that included three running backs scattered across the field.
As many as five running backs could see action with the starting offense, with sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and freshman Kyren Williams fighting for playing time. Book is confident throwing it to any of them.
“It really just shows how many backs we have and how athletic they are,” Book said. “They can go out there and make plays receiving the ball. This year we have a ton of backs that can play.”
The tight end group took a hit when junior Cole Kmet broke his collarbone in August too. That leaves fellow junior Brock Wright as the only active tight end with a career catch on his Notre Dame résumé. His only two catches came last season. Sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble should see his first game action against Louisville.
With all the inexperience around him, Book has made an effort to develop relationships with each potential pass catcher. He wants to be on the same page with them. He needs to be.
“I think he’s adapted really well to those guys,” Long said, “and just his overall leadership and confidence and the way he goes about each and every practice has been really impressive.”
Preparing for unknowns
Book couldn’t just turn on last year’s game footage to study Louisville.
With a new coaching staff, the Cardinals will look schematically different this season.
New head coach Scott Satterfield brought defensive coordinator Bryan Brown with him from Appalachian State. That meant Book spent time watching film of the Mountaineers and their 3-4 defensive scheme.
Appalachian State finished 2018 sixth in the FBS in scoring defense (15.7 points per game), third in passing defense (148.1 yards per game) and sixth in total defense (279.3 yards per game).
“Those coaches have done a great job there,” Book said. “You can see that on film. You can tell that Louisville’s going to be fired up to play us. We went through it all. We have a really good scheme for that.”
Book did some film study of Louisville’s personnel from last year too. But when it comes to Monday night, he’s going to be relying on the same reads he’s practiced all offseason. Even if he can’t rely on knowing the defense’s tendencies, he’s worked on learning what to recognize in a defense before and after the snap to better inform his decisions.
“The reads — reading post snap and reading safeties — it’s all the same,” Book said. “I have to just be disciplined with my eyes and do what I have to do every week. It doesn’t change that much, but I definitely have to stay maybe more disciplined with it with a new defensive coordinator there.”
Book’s confidence in his preparation also reflects the trust he has in Rees. He credits Rees for putting him in a position to succeed. When Rees tells him something will happen, it typically turns out that way.
“It just shows how much he believes in me and how much he knows,” Book said. ‘There have been a couple times were he’s said some things like that. Next thing you know, it’s happening and he’s like, ‘I told you so. The hard work’s paying off, but you have so much room for growth.’
“He pushes me every day. He’s never let up. I appreciate him for that.”
Rees knows the ups and downs and the challenges that come with playing quarterback at Notre Dame from his 31 starts during his four years on campus. Now Rees sees a pupil ready for whatever is thrown his way.
“I think he’s learned what it’s like to be a returning starter here and what the expectation level is and what his commitment level needs to be,” Rees said. “He handles himself extremely well in all (aspects) of what’s expected of him.”