The Ian Book experience cemented Notre Dame’s emerging change of direction in QB recruiting
EVOLVING PHILOSOPHY TAKES SHAPE
Mike Leach never discarded the lacrosse stick that Ian Book gifted him during the recruiting process.
It still resides in Washington State’s football meeting room, in fact. The Cougar coaching staff often fiddles with the stick when scouring film and game planning.
Leach, in his eighth year as head coach of the Cougars, doesn’t spew animosity when recalling Book’s eventual decommitment from WSU.
Before flipping to Notre Dame and later joining its 2016 recruiting class, Book called Leach and notified him of his plans. Book handled the situation fine, Leach said.
But the lacrosse stick still serves as a reminder for Leach of what might have been.
“I thought what we asked our quarterbacks to do matched better than Notre Dame’s (philosophy),” Leach said, “I still think that. If he comes to our place, he has a chance to lead the nation in passing.”
Maybe the 6-foot, 208-pounder would have benefited from Leach’s renowned air raid offense. Or maybe Book will go on to lead the nation in passing for Notre Dame, anyway. The senior has two seasons of eligibility and more development to try and do so.
Book boasted the nation’s eighth-best completion percentage (68.2) in nine starts last season, and set the single-season school record. He ranked No. 17 in passing efficiency (154.0).
Book’s efficient numbers — not to mention his overtaking of incumbent Brandon Wimbush on the depth chart in late September — hinted at Notre Dame’s rearrangement of offensive priorities.
The Irish appearing in the College Football Playoff last December and finishing 12-1 under Book fed ND’s evolving quarterback philosophy. And it’s showing up noticeably on the recruiting trail.
“The No. 1 thing in all of the evaluations we do now is obviously accuracy, then decision-making, then intangibles,” said Chip Long, ND’s offensive coordinator. “But accuracy above all else.”
Those strengths also appear present in Notre Dame’s two quarterback commits — Drew Pyne (2020) and Tyler Buchner (2021). Time will tell whether Irish sophomore Phil Jurkovec and freshman Brendon Clark will develop the attributes the Irish now covet at an elite level.
Avery Davis, a dual-threat QB recruited in the class between Book and Jurkovec, never had that chance. He was moved to running back/receiver in 2018 and will begin the 2019 season as a cornerback.
Five of Book’s six predecessors under head coach Brian Kelly — Dayne Crist (59.3), Tommy Rees (59.9), Everett Golson (59.5), Malik Zaire (59.2) and Brandon Wimbush (50.5) — posted a completion rate of under 60 percent for their Irish careers.
The exception, DeShone Kizer, had a career completion percentage of 60.8, which would have only ranked 58th nationally in 2018.
In 2017, Long’s first season with the Irish, Wimbush turned 141 carries into 803 yards and 14 touchdowns. The yardage is the second-most in a single season in school history. The rushing touchdown total broke the old Irish standard by four.
Book also possesses quick feet and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, per Kelly. However, Book primarily used his legs to extend plays and run when needed. He recorded 280 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 95 carries.
“I don’t think the label really matters that much,” said Book on dual-threat versus pro-style quarterbacks. “Shoot, I don’t even know what I was. Was I pro? I was probably pro, right? I would consider myself being able to be dual-threat.
“I don’t think it matter what you are labeled. If you can extend the play, you can extend the play.”
WSU lost Book in August of 2015 after Notre Dame whiffed on a handful of quarterbacks.
Top Irish targets in that cycle Malik Henry (Florida State, later transferring to Nevada), Shea Patterson (Ole Miss, later transferring to Michigan), Jacob Eason (Georgia, later transferring to Washington), Matt Fink (USC) and Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) chose to go elsewhere.
With Kizer, Zaire and Wimbush already on campus, Book, a three-star recruit, was considered an afterthought in the big picture. His success last season helped accelerate the change in philosophy for Irish quarterback recruiting.
“When he committed to Notre Dame, at that point it had one of the healthiest quarterback rooms in college football,” said Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting. “And he didn’t give a s---.”
None of Notre Dame’s current recruiting commitments elicit opinions with more divergence than Drew Pyne, a product of New Canaan (Conn.) High.
247Sports rates Pyne as a three-star recruit, ranking him as its No. 13 pro-style quarterback and No. 459 overall player. Rivals pegs Pyne as a four-star recruit, tagging him No. 5 at the position and No. 82 overall.
Recruiting analysts within Rivals, too, don’t see eye to eye on the 6-1, 196-pounder. National recruiting director Mike Farrell said mid-Atlantic analyst Adam Friedman influenced Pyne’s higher ranking. Farrell trusted Friedman, who had seen Pyne throw several times over the years.
But not without reservations.
“I like Drew Pyne,” said Farrell, “but he’s very, very small.”
The similarities between Pyne and Book, though, are hard to dispute.
Pyne completed 64.7 percent of his passes (205-for-317) last season, throwing for 2,602 yards and 30 touchdowns with six interceptions. Clocking a 4.7 40-yard dash in April, Pyne extends plays with his feet and runs on occasion.
His quick decision-making helped the Rams to a 10-3 record in 2018.
“I look up to Ian Book a lot,” said Pyne, who agreed with the comparison. “We are both similarly sized, work hard and are competitors. Look at his completion percentage last season. He makes good decisions and puts the ball where it needs to be. I strive to be like Ian.”
Finishing last season at 177 pounds, Pyne bulked up 19 pounds last spring. Pyne has heard the concerns pertaining to his size. He hopes to weigh over 200 pounds when arriving to South Bend in January as an early enrollee.
Could concerns over an inch or two be outdated?
The last two Heisman Trophy winners were undersized quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (6-1, 209) and Kyler Murray (5-10, 207). Despite their perceived physical limitations, both were selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 and 2019 NFL Drafts, respectively.
“We need to be thinking of that more at the high school level,” said Friedman on the height debate. “When you display the arm strength, the mechanics, the footwork and the football IQ that Drew has at this level, it’s silly to not have him ranked fairly high in the country.
“How refined his game is at this point is very rare.”
The evolution of modern offenses can, in some cases, minimize deficiencies in size, durability and straight-line speed. Long’s offense leverages its share of the run-pass option, which gives quarterbacks the opportunity to pass to a wide receiver, hand it off to the running back or run themselves on certain plays.
Elite size and speed aren’t necessary to operate the RPO game, Long said.
“They just have to be able to run out of their shadow,” he said. “(Before), the RPO wasn’t very big, and you were looking for a dual-threat guy. The RPO game allows you not to run your quarterback as much.
“If they have speed, great. Then you can add another dimension. They have to be able to run out of their shadow. They have to be able to evade the rush, get what they can and get down and what-not.
“But I think accuracy, decision-making, anticipation, being a great leader and what-not and arm strength is the most important right now. Be good at something. And we’ll work around it.”
Clearly the Irish believed Pyne possessed these qualities, as he was the only 2020 quarterback to report a Notre Dame scholarship offer.
Beyond adding more weight, Pyne will continue to refine his game under the tutelage of David Morris. Through his company QB Country, Morris trains many college and NFL players.
Pyne also worked this offseason with Daniel Jones, who the New York Giants selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
“Drew’s differentiator is twitch,” Morris said. “He has a lot of quickness and natural, fast-twitch movement ability above the hips and below the hips. That’s the thing that makes him really special. Part of his quick-twitch stuff is even his ability to think twitchy and not hesitate.
“He does not overthink. He trusts his eyes and trusts his reads to throw on time and anticipate.”
Tyler Buchner committed to Notre Dame in March (2018) of his sophomore year in high school. No Kelly era quarterback has verbally pledged to the Irish so early in the recruiting process.
The La Jolla (Calif.) The Bishop’s School quarterback also appears to be the most inexperienced at the time of his commitment.
Buchner threw one pass as a sophomore. On the first drive of his first game last season, Buchner suffered a torn ACL in his left knee.
As a freshman, Buchner threw 37 passes in mop-up duty behind then-senior quarterback Jeffrey Jackson. Buchner returned to unrestricted activities last May.
“Yeah, I know people doubt me,” Buchner said. “I don’t worry about that. I’m confident in my game. I know I’m good.”
Quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees and the rest of the Irish staff also seemed confident about Buchner’s prowess after watching him throw last summer. Buchner began last June’s Elite Skills Camp at Notre Dame by running a 4.63 40-yard dash. The Irish offered him a scholarship after an impressive throwing session.
The 6-2, 212-pounder coaxed similar responses over the last couple years. A USC assistant coach once offered Buchner after watching him throw just one pass, and against no defense.
“It’s hard sometimes on film to get a really good feel for mechanics and accuracy,” Rees said. “You can tell when a guy has an innate ability to place the ball where you need to. When we’re able to work them out, it’s, ‘Hey, I want this ball on his left shoulder,’ and they’re able to place it.”
247Sports and Rivals see high upside in Buchner as well, pegging him as a four-star recruit and the seventh-best pro-style quarterback. Rivals in mid-June slated Buchner as its No. 52 overall player, while 247Sports ranked him No. 100 overall.
Like Book, Buchner stars as a high school lacrosse player. He was once even committed to Michigan’s lacrosse program. Buchner’s game features off-platform throws, which can require a retooled throwing motion while off-balance.
“You have to get creative to get by your guy,” said Buchner of lacrosse. “You have to create plays. That’s the whole idea of lacrosse — being a playmaker. It’s the same thing with being a quarterback. If somebody forces you to scramble around, you’ve got to make plays.”
The Bishop’s School’s offense mirrors that of Notre Dame, Buchner said. Notre Dame hopes he will mirror Book.
“We move in the pocket very similarly,” said Buchner, referring to Book. “I feel like a lot of our movements out of the pocket, ability to scramble and move, quickness and agility, the cutting and things is very much like lacrosse moves.
“Hopefully, I can throw the ball as well too one day.”
Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and receiver Isaiah Robertson are two of three Notre Dame players without a known Twitter or Instagram account.
Freshman quarterback Brendon Clark represents the third. He deleted his private Twitter account following his senior football season at Midlothian (Va.) Manchester High.
“It’s just a personal thing,” Clark said. “I want to keep my private life private. It’s mentally relieving. Somebody is talking about you and how they think you play or what they think you’ll be when you go to college.
“This one guy was like, ‘This guy is going to be pretty good at holding (for) kicks.’ I’ve never held (for) a kick in my entire life.”
The three-star recruit instead turned his focus to adding 15 pounds in the offseason and now stands at 6-2, 225. Winning the Virginia High School League Class 6A championship game did not leave him satisfied for long.
Clark spent his last couple months in Virginia learning Notre Dame’s playbook — which was too bulky for his mailbox. Offensive graduate assistant Pat Kramer video chatted on FaceTime with Clark often to review plays and schemes.
“I was kind of surprised with how similar it was to my high school offense,” said Clark, a June arrival at ND. “I’ve learned more about defenses this offseason than I ever had.”
On paper, Clark does not boast the accuracy and quickness of Pyne, Book or Buchner. Some of the numbers might be deceiving, though.
Clark’s modest completion rate (59.4) came as a result of two things — a small sample size and how his offense operated.
Manchester won all but one of its 15 games by at least 30 points, which kept Clark on the sidelines of most second halves.
“I think a lot of his plays were predetermined,” Friedman said. “Chuck it deep to our guy who we know is faster and just have him win the jump ball. Your accuracy is one thing, but sometimes your guy isn’t able to make the play.
“If you are completing 59 percent of your 50-50 balls, there are a lot of coaches out there that would take that percentage.”
Clark boasted one of the nation’s best TD-interception ratios, 35-1. His downhill rushing style accounted for 774 yards and 17 touchdowns on 105 carries. He runs a 4.74 40-yard dash.
“He’s a winner, very accurate, very nice release,” Long said. “I think he moves a lot better than people give him credit for. Good size.”
A redshirt season as a freshman seems likely for Clark. Jurkovec’s unconvincing spring football campaign suggests Clark could challenge for the starting job once Book leaves.
Or maybe Pyne and Buchner will make a push when the time comes. The line of succession behind Book remains unclear, but the Irish believe his successor will have what they desire.
“When Ian comes back for his fifth year,” said Rees, pausing to smile at Book, “we’re going to have a really good room of depth. ... It will be exciting to see the guys that we’ve been able to recruit the last couple years finally get here and start to build the room the way we want to build it.”
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
Our annual season preview magazine can now be purchased online and in stores locally. You can order copies here to be shipped to you. If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find them at these local stores.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
Don’t miss out on this top-notch product from our award-winning staff. Click here to order your copy today.
The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.