Quarterback Ian Book making current and former Notre Dame coaches look smart

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly’s signing day press conference in 2016 lasted 49 minutes.

The Notre Dame head coach was asked 39 different questions. Quarterback Ian Book’s name wasn’t mentioned once.

That’s how little buzz accompanied the three-star recruit signing in Notre Dame’s 2016 class. The former Washington State commit flipped his pledge to the Irish in August 2015 and become somewhat of an afterthought come February.

Kelly was instead asked about safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott, defensive ends Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes, linebackers Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones, the “deep” group of wide receivers and other big-picture recruiting topics.

The only questions Kelly answered about quarterbacks focused on recruiting and evaluating quarterbacks at a younger age.

It was a reflection of the public discussion about Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting in the 2016 class. There was a time when some recruitniks were more interested in Notre Dame skipping a quarterback in the 2016 class to improve its chances to add five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson in the 2017 class.

That was largely in part because Book wasn’t Notre Dame’s first choice at quarterback. Trying to find a quarterback one class after four-star recruit Brandon Wimbush signed with the Irish wasn’t easy. Nine other quarterbacks reported Notre Dame offers before Book.

The list of Irish quarterback targets included Malik Henry (Florida State), Jacob Eason (Georgia), Shea Patterson (Ole Miss), Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) and Matt Fink (USC).

Instead, Notre Dame ended up with Book, a quarterback from El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Oak Ridge who offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford knew from his time recruiting at Boise State. After a campus visit, Book decided he wanted to join Notre Dame’s class.

The addition wasn’t widely celebrated. CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming described Book as “nothing spectacular, but he’s a good, efficient quarterback.”

In response to the news of Book’s commitment, Twitter user @CKujawa22 wrote “yeahhh I’m pumped about a guy who will never play unless we are up by 30 with 3 mins to go in 2018....”

More than three years later in his first start of the 2018 season, Book helped Notre Dame build a 36-point lead to beat Wake Forest.

Now no one following Notre Dame football can stop talking about Book.

Unwavering confidence

The path that led Book to becoming Notre Dame’s starting quarterback seems only fitting.

Three years ago, he decided he’d rather follow Wimbush in Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class than stick to his original commitment to Washington State.

The 6-foot, 203-pound Book, who has two years of eligibility remaining after this season, was stuck behind Wimbush for most of the 2017 season. Despite coming off the bench and leading Notre Dame to a 21-17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl, Book couldn’t beat out Wimbush in the ensuing preseason quarterback competition.

But after Wimbush struggled in Notre Dame’s first three wins of the 2018 season, the Irish coaching staff decided it was time for Book to lead Notre Dame’s offense. After throwing for 603 yards and six touchdowns on 39-of-67 passing (73 percent) in victories over Wake Forest and Stanford, Book’s making his coaches look smart.

That includes Sanford, who left Notre Dame to become Western Kentucky’s head coach in December 2016. Book said this week that the two don’t keep in touch much. If not for Sanford, Book might not have ended up at Notre Dame.

“There were a lot of things that attracted me here,” Book said Wednesday. “I wanted to get such a good education, the tradition. I came on campus and like a lot of people say, once you step foot on campus, it’s just that feeling you get. I got the same feeling. It was awesome.”

Book, who is enrolled in the Mendoza College of Business and majoring in marketing, wasn’t afraid of the presence of Wimbush and the potential that the quarterback ahead of him would prevent him from starting until late in his Notre Dame career.

“I knew who Brandon was,” Book said. “I know he’s a good player. It wasn’t something that I tried to focus on that much because every class is going to bring in a good quarterback. There was an open spot here.”

Even if recruiting analysts didn’t have confidence in Book, he had plenty of confidence in himself. Book finished his senior season completing 224 of his 346 passes (65 percent) for 3,049 yards and 30 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He also rushed for 779 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Gaudy as those numbers were, Book still was ranked only the No. 15 pro-style quarterback on Rivals and No. 18 at the position on 247Sports. Still, Book saw himself as a future starter at Notre Dame.

“You have to think that you’re the best player out there,” Book said. “Every quarterback in the league, every quarterback in college has to think that they’re the best player out there and that they’re going to get the job done and lead the offense. It’s something I’ve always reminded myself and tried to pride myself on.”

Outplaying his peers

Notre Dame already has beaten two quarterbacks this season ranked higher than Book in the 2016 class.

In the season opener, the Irish defeated Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who 247Sports ranked as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class. Book played only two offensive snaps that game, and they both resulted in touchdown runs by running back Jafar Armstrong.

Then last weekend, Book beat Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello in a head-to-head matchup. Rivals ranked Costello as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class.

Book’s just happy to have finally received the opportunities to prove himself after patiently waiting into his junior season to become a full-time starter.

“It’s a dream come true,” Book said. “I’ve always wanted to play college football. To be able to play here has been awesome. Last Saturday was a night I’ll never forget, but the weeks move fast here.

“I got to celebrate a little bit Saturday night with the guys and had a good time. Sunday morning, you had to switch your mindset and start thinking about Virginia Tech. It’s fun.”

Book used the word “fun” a lot on Wednesday. He even used it when describing the opportunity of playing in a hostile Lane Stadium against No. 24-ranked Virginia Tech (3-1) and mastermind defensive coordinator Bud Foster.

“It can give a lot of offenses problems,” Book said. “We’ve done a great job preparing for all those looks. We still have some stuff to do. It’s something that’s going to make Saturday night really fun. To be able to see some looks you haven’t seen and to prepare like we are throughout the week and be confident and know that we will have an answer for those looks.”

The confidence seems to have rubbed off on Kelly. No longer does the depth chart include an “or” between Book and Wimbush. Book is the starter, and Kelly’s talking less about finding ways to use both quarterbacks.

Asked this week about what Book has done to impress him, Kelly had plenty to say.

“Certainly we could be here for a long time or a short time,” Kelly said. “The short time would be I like that he wins. The more in-depth would be he has certainly created a confidence level amongst the entire unit.

“Whether it’s escapability, where he can sense the rush and that builds a confidence level with your offensive line that they know that even if they maybe don’t sustain a block, that they’re going to be OK. So I don’t have to grab or hold.

“Wide receivers knowing that they’re going to get the football in a position where they can run after the catch. I could go on and on and on. But he’s won football games.”

Book prepared himself for these moments — not to be the backup quarterback taking the final snaps at the end of a blowout. To be the leader of Notre Dame’s offense. It just took a while for the moments to present themselves.

“For a long time, I’ve been saying I’ve been trying to prepare like I’m the starter since I’ve gotten here. When it’s my time, it will make it that much better,” Book said. “It would really suck to not be ready if your name was called. It was something I focused on since the day I stepped on campus as a freshman.”

Even if the reporters covering Notre Dame weren’t.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book has thrown for 603 yards and six touchdowns in his two starts this season.