Hansen: Are there more pros than cons in a possible Ian Book return to Notre Dame in 2020?

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — As Ian Book this week prepares to face the second-worst pass-efficiency defense in the 130-team FBS on Saturday, the prospects that the Notre Dame starting quarterback will be back with the Irish in 2020 seems to be growing.

At least from the outside looking in.

The most discerning eyes among those, and the ones that could most strongly influence the Irish senior to exercise his fifth-year option, are the NFL scouts and personnel types.

And the snapshot they see of Book, a third of the way through 2019, is a player who’d benefit from continuing his evolution in college next year.

“If he were in this upcoming draft class, I think he’d clearly be a Day 3 prospect at best (rounds 4-7),” said NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of “There’s a chance he wouldn’t even be drafted.

“At some point there was a buzz about him in the draft community, but I think it’s coming clear he needs that final year of eligibility.”

Book’s 15th collegiate start unfolds Saturday, when the No. 9 Irish (3-1) take on Bowling Green (1-3) at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV). The 45 ½-point favorites are seeking their eighth win all-time against a Mid-American Conference opponent in as many tries.

And Book is seeking to become more decisive, per ND head coach Brian Kelly’s directive.

“We want to continue to see steady progress in him seeing the field, making good decisions as it relates to protections, our RPOs (run-pass options),” Kelly said earlier this week of Book (75-of-119 passing for 993 yards, eight TDs with two picks).

“We want to continue to see that natural process of managing our offense, but also he’s got the ability to be explosive. I think that’s the next step for him.”

The next-level evaluators see the same thing too in a player who’s tumbled from No. 5 nationally in passing efficiency to 41st the past two weeks against admittedly the two best pass defenses and overall defenses on the Irish schedule this season.

Against Virginia last Saturday — a 35-20 Irish victory — Book didn’t have either a rushing TD or a touchdown pass, only the second time as a starter that’s happened. The other Book start like that was the 30-3 smothering by Clemson, Dec. 29 in the College Football Playoff.

“I think he’s a good college player but was kind of a fringy (NFL) prospect before the season,” Wright said of Book. “His play this year so far really hasn’t helped matters. Yet there’s still a lot of football left to be played.”

Wright sees the best-possible scenario for the 2020 draft being in the third- to fifth-round range, with the ceiling being second or third round if the 6-foot, 212-pounder comes back for a fifth year.

“I think there is always going to be a cap on his ceiling, because he’s not this incredible physical specimen,” Wright said. “Even if he catches fire and lights it up down the stretch, there’s still some physical deficiencies there. I think aside from that, it’s just kind of missing the opportunities for some big plays.

“I think he’s leaving a lot of production out there on the field, and I think we kind of saw that last year with (wide receiver) Miles Boykin, where he turned out to be this phenomenal specimen and he is performing right away as a rookie.

“I think he left some production on the field last year with him, and I think we’re seeing a similar thing this year with Chase Claypool. I think there’s an opportunity for Book to play better than he has been, but he’s not always seeing those opportunities.”

Catching on

The fastest-rising draft prospect on the Irish roster, per Wright, has played in just two games this season — junior tight end Cole Kmet.

But in those two games since returning from a broken collarbone, and against the nation’s No. 9 and 15 defenses (Georgia and Virginia, respectively), Kmet has amassed 13 catches for 173 yards and a TD.

With just five catches and four yards Saturday against Bowling Green, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound two sport star (lefty reliever for the Irish baseball team) would pass his career totals coming into the season in the third game of his junior season.

“He intrigues me partly because of his talent, his skill set, but also because this is not a great class of tight ends,” Wright said. “And some of the top guys have kind of underwhelmed so far this season — the kid from Missouri (Albert Okwuegbunam), Jared Pickney from Vanderbilt.

“I think you could make an argument that Cole Kmet has the most talent and pure upside of any draft-eligible tight end for the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s off to a hot start, and as teams get more film on him and get a close look — especially compared to some of the other options — I think he’s going to become a hot name.

“I’ve been telling my colleagues, ‘Look out for this guy.’ As long as he can stay healthy, I absolutely think he has early-round ability, maybe even first round.”

Win-win for Hayes, ND

It took roughly 48 hours from the time senior Daelin Hayes suffered a season-ending torn labrum in his shoulder Saturday against Virginia to decide and announce that he’ll redshirt this season and return to Notre Dame in 2020.

The quality and quantity defensive line coach Mike Elston has assembled and developed is the most significant indicator that the double-digit-win seasons the Irish have put together the past two seasons is much more likely to be sustainable than not.

Hayes and fellow Michigan product Ade Ogundeji would be the projected starters on the edges next season, with Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem headed to the NFL next spring. Among the players in the 2020 defensive end rotations would be Justin Ademilola, Isaiah Foskey, Ovie Oghoufo and NaNa Osafo-Mensah.

And that’s assuming that senior Jamir Jones now plays out his final year of eligibility instead of redshirting, as originally planned.

The Irish add in high-end prospect Jordan Botelho from Hawaii and German import Alex Ehrensberger in 2020 freshman class.

On the interior, none of the seven players on the current roster have expiring eligibility and six of the seven have either freshman or sophomore eligibility status. On top of that, the Irish will add Rylie Mills and Aidan Keanaaina for 2020, and have a commitment from 2021 prospect Gabriel Rubio.

The biggest winner in 2020, though, may be Hayes himself, who would have a chance to build an NFL résumé as a starter.

“He was on the NFL radar as it was,” Wright said. “You never want to see a guy get injured, but ultimately it could be a blessing in disguise for him. If he takes advantage of that extra year of eligibility as the guy, the featured pass rusher, his whole draft profile could change dramatically.”

Apple to papayas?

It may not be an entirely fair comparison, but it’s an interesting one, nevertheless.

Notre Dame enters its Saturday matchup with Bowling Green having cobbled together 18 consecutive games of holding its opponents to 30 points or fewer. Washington has the nation’s longest active streak in that category, at 19.

Seventeen of ND’s 18 games in the streak occurred with Clark Lea as ND’s defensive coordinator.

Bowling Green’s Brian VanGorder, meanwhile, has presided over defenses in his last 18 games as a college defense coordinator that have allowed more than 30 points 13 times and more than 50 points nine times.

That dates back to his final two games as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in September of 2016. The teams’ records in those 18 games is 3-15 (0-2 at Notre Dame, 2-10 at Louisville and 1-3 at BG).

Will Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) eventually exercise his fifth-year option and return to play for the Irish in 2020?
Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet (84) signals for a first down after making a catch during ND’s 35-20 win over Virginia, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (3-1) vs. Bowling Green (1-3)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 45 1/2