Vorel: Welcome to Notre Dame QB speculation season

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. — Notre Dame’s football season is over.

But quarterback speculation season has just begun.

Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to talk about it on Monday. In the immediate wake of No. 14 Notre Dame’s 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over No. 16 LSU, in which sophomore quarterback Ian Book helped rescue the Irish after junior Brandon Wimbush’s shaky start, Kelly sat at a podium and deflected the night’s most inevitable question.

Q: Do you have a definitive starting quarterback at this moment moving forward?

A: Yeah, I don't think I'm ready to get into all of those things. I mean, we just won a football game, and then we'll make all those decisions later.

Ready or not, the questions will come.

Like, tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and so on. That’s what happens when your starting quarterback completes 49.8 percent of his passes in the regular season, then promptly gets replaced in the bowl game. It’s what happens when said replacement completes 14 of 19 passes, throws for two touchdowns and leads a triumphant final drive to seal the win.

It’s what happens when you decide to play two quarterbacks in the first place.

To be clear, that proved to be the right decision. Wimbush missed two entire bowl practices with migraines, Kelly revealed on Monday. That created an opportunity for Book to devour valuable first-team reps.

Now, at nearly every press conference and public appearance, Kelly will be the one with the headache.

And, by the way, this shouldn’t come as a shocking development. It’s closer to déjà vu. Back in 2014, the Irish head coach played both quarterbacks Malik Zaire — who took home MVP honors — and Everett Golson in a Music City Bowl victory over LSU. The ensuing offseason featured a highly publicized competition between the two, before Golson inevitably transferred.

Back then, it was Zaire and Golson … and eventually, DeShone Kizer.

Now, it’s Book and Wimbush … and eventually, just maybe, four-star incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec.

From tonight until kickoff of Notre Dame’s 2018 season opener against Michigan on Sept. 1, the debate will rage on in message boards and on social media.

But on Monday, at least, Book was the clear beneficiary.

“Ian is extremely accurate as a passer,” Kelly said, with Book seated to his left. “He's got a really fine ability to locate the football. He throws strikes, and that's the strength that he has. I think we saw that if you do not play him in the option game, he is extremely capable of pulling it and being effective in the run game.

“He's a quarterback at Notre Dame, and so there's high expectations. But we knew what he could give our football team. It's like anything else. He just needs experience. And he got it today.”

Of course, Book’s relative inexperience also reared its ugly head, as the 6-foot, 208-pound sophomore threw a regrettable interception to LSU All-America cornerback Andraez "Greedy" Williams.

But even then, the sophomore separated himself. Unlike Wimbush, who let similar mistakes snowball in losses at Miami (Fla.) and Stanford, Book responded with three consecutive scoring drives to secure the Irish win.

More impressive than his total performance was his response to a mistake.

“If he stays in good rhythm and lets his feet take him through his progression, he's going get the ball out to the right receiver,” Kelly said of the interception. “He held onto the ball a little late, threw it late on the sprint-out, and he knew right away.

“When you get that connection and it clicks that, ‘I know I've got to throw that ball into the fifth row,’ you're ready to move on past that … after I yell at him a little bit, of course.”

So Kelly yelled, and Book responded. And after the game, they sat side-by-side, donning identical Citrus Bowl championship hats.

“It's so surreal,” Book said from a conference room inside Camping World Stadium. “There's really no way to describe it, but I couldn't ask for anything more. It's just the best way to start this new year, and definitely with the people that I want to start it with.”

Speaking of starting … hey Brian, if you’re reading this, have you named a starting quarterback?

Not yet? No problem.

I’ll ask again tomorrow.

Notre Dame's Ian Book (12) celebrates with teammates following Notre Dame's 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN