Notre Dame searching for confidence in backup quarterback options
The luxury of having a third-year starting quarterback under the current circumstances wasn’t lost on Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Graduate student Ian Book has made navigating an offseason completely transformed by the coronavirus pandemic a little bit easier as Rees prepared for his first season calling plays for the Irish. Rees knew he could rely on Book as a leader.
“Not just this scenario, there’s a lot of scenarios that you would face where you’d want Ian to be the guy leading your team,” Rees said. “He has the respect of all of his teammates — offensively and defensively. When he wants to say something, they’re going to listen.
“He knows me and knows my expectations, which have been important with building the relationship with the rest of the offense. He’s a good sounding board that way.”
So while continuing to push Book to maximize his potential, Rees has been able to focus on making sure he has a No. 2 quarterback ready to go. With the offseason departure of junior Phil Jurkovec to Boston College, the Irish were left with just two more scholarship quarterbacks: sophomore Brendon Clark and freshman Drew Pyne.
The college experience for that duo is limited, with Clark — a former three-star recruit — playing in three blowout victories last season. To his credit, Clark completed his one pass attempt for a 22-yard touchdown to wide receiver Braden Lenzy in the 66-14 win over New Mexico.
But thanks to the pandemic, Clark has as many spring practices under his belt as he has career completions. Pyne, who enrolled early, joined the Irish ranked as a four-star recruit and the No. 7 pro-style quarterback by Rivals. Both were on the field of the Irish Indoor Athletics Center for Notre Dame’s lone spring practice in March.
How can Rees prepare them to be the No. 2 quarterback with so few practice reps?
“That’s probably the area I’ve put a lot of my focus — to get those two up to speed,” Rees said. “Ian and I have talked about it, and we’ve all talked about it. It’s an unfortunate deal. They couldn’t get reps. But they’ve learned the offense deeper and better than they probably would have in a normal offseason. So that’s a plus.”
Without live action, the learning for Clark and Pyne has been more theoretical than practical. Rees tried to find ways to put them under mental pressure to simulate in-game reactions. Preseason camp will be an important measuring stick to put what they’ve learned to use.
“I want to throw things at them where they have to visualize it and now react,” Rees said. “We’ve done a lot of that where it’s virtual, but I’m trying to give it as much of a visual as I can. They have to see it without seeing it.
“I want them to be able to visualize it and say, ‘OK, this is what I’m seeing. If I close my eyes, I can picture it and this is how I’m reacting.’ They’ve done a great job. I’m as confident in our group right now as I’ve been.”
Though Clark was on campus seven months before Pyne, he spent much of his freshman season on the scout team. He was named Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year for his efforts, but that limited the amount of time he spent actually operating Notre Dame’s offense.
Rees liked what he saw from Clark in his three game experiences against New Mexico, Bowling Green and Iowa State. It may be enough to give him a leg up in the competition for backup quarterback. In a season when every player’s availability will be crucial, the backup’s quarterback’s readiness will be vital.
“The operation of the offense was really pretty smooth for a guy that wasn’t with us all the time, was on scout team and had a very limited number of plays,” Rees said of Clark. “In terms of operationally and the smoothness of it, it was pretty sharp. That gives me some optimism there.”
In a perfect world, Rees doesn’t have to call on either, as Book stays healthy and raises his game in his final year with the Irish. Last season, Book saw his passing efficiency (149.14) and completion percentage (60.2) drop from 2018 (153.97 and 68.2, respectively).
Book has completed 500 passes in his Notre Dame career for 6,118 yards and 57 touchdowns with 17 interceptions. Despite all the experience, there’s still room for improvement.
An unprecedented offseason won’t be an excuse for a lack of progression.
“Ian’s held to the same standard,” Rees said. “Operationally, how’s he moving the team? Is he making good decisions? That goes for everyone in the room.”