Analysis: QB Ian Book in a bubble helps Notre Dame football to keep dreaming big

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a day when Brian Kelly revealed a Notre Dame football depth chart peppered with surprises, the Irish head coach illuminated why it’s unlikely there will be one at the quarterback position this season.

At least when it comes to COVID-19 potentially coming into play.

Third-year starter Ian Book, Kelly said, will spend the 2020 season in an individual bubble of sorts when he’s away from football obligations.

“We have Ian in a very different situation, where he is by himself,” Kelly acknowledged.

That includes all of his classwork, which is being done via Zoom conference calls off campus.

"Obviously, I would like it to be the other way and be able to enjoy the whole experience," Book said Tuesday night, "but honestly, we've got to play this season. And I've got to do what I'm going to do to stay healthy.”

That underscores the experience chasm between Book — who makes career start No. 24 Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, when the 10th-ranked Irish open the season with Duke — and redshirt freshman backup Brendon Clark and his singular collegiate career passing attempt.

It also is Kelly’s way of doubling down on his expressed December notion that this Irish team could be his best, though he halfheartedly tried to walk that back a bit Monday during a Zoom conference call with the media before ultimately owning it.

“The basic tenets of having a really good football team — potentially a great football team — are in place,” Kelly said. “And now we’re going to have to go prove it.”

Saturday, the Irish (11-2 in 2019) are on track to start the proving process with a full roster, having made it through Monday’s antigen tests without a single positive and having no lingering cases in either isolation or quarantine.

Notre Dame players will test again Wednesday and Friday, in line with the three-times-a-week guidelines set forth by the Atlantic Coast Conference, ND’s temporary pandemic-inspired affiliation this season.

On campus, the testing numbers continue to be impressive, even as Notre Dame re-phases in its in-person classes. According to Monday’s ND COVID-19 dashboard, ND has 69 active cases among its employees and nearly 12,000 students.

And the seven-day positivity rate is at 1.5%, down from 20.6% on Aug. 18, the day university president John Jenkins issued an edict/ultimatum pivoting the ND campus to remote learning with the threat of sending everyone home for good.

The Irish football team canceled practice the next day and the two days that followed before resuming Aug. 22.

“It’s easy to get rattled and lose your focus and get distracted,” Kelly said. “This group has done an incredible job of managing that. It doesn’t mean that they’re immune to what’s going on around them. They’re tuned into it.

“But they’ve done a really good job of parking a lot of that. When it’s time to get to the football field, by and large they’ve done a great job. What I mean by that is that they’ve left that behind and they’ve really focused and put a lot of time on honing their craft.

“That requires maturity. It requires great leadership. It requires guys that have a championship mindset and are building that.”

Speaking of leadership, Kelly is expected to reveal his 2020 captains on Wednesday. Book is expected to be among the selections, as he was in 2019.

The methodology of keeping all three scholarship quarterbacks from getting quarantined in a single swipe, and having to turn to someone like wide receiver Avery Davis or running back Kendall Abdur-Rahman, starts with the basics of wearing masks and social distancing in position meetings.

“Contact tracing for us is probably not going to happen (because of) any of our meetings,” Kelly said. “Twice we were addressed in that as a potential situation, but because of our six-feet separation in terms of our social distancing and wearing masks, we were disqualified from having to go through that.

“I applaud our coaches for their discipline and our players for that. On the field, it’s quite difficult for a quarterback to be caught in contact tracing. They’re not that close relative to contact. They’re not having contact with each other — physical contact that would rule them out.”

Where there is no bubble is when it comes to a potential injury.

And for the Irish offense to be effective under first-year coordinator Tommy Rees, Book has to be an ample part of the running game.

His 112 carries and 546 yards were second on the team last season to now-New Orleans Saints practice squad rookie Tony Jones Jr.’s 144 and 857, respectively. And Book’s 4.9-yard average per carry is better than any returning Irish running back with five or more carries last season.

The last time the Irish faced Duke, Book amassed the third-most rushing yards by an Irish QB since 1996 (139 yards), in a 38-7 road rout on Nov. 9.

The lingering question from those on the outside looking in remains whether there’s another level for Book to climb to after landing at No. 24 in the final national pass-efficiency rankings of 2019.

Plenty of questions around Book were answered Monday with the release of Notre Dame’s first depth chart of the season. That’s usually a non-event since the media has seen a handful of training camp practices.

Not this season, because of COVID-19. It’s the same reason the Irish will play their first conference game ever in front of a projected crowd capped at 15,525 — the smallest Notre Dame Stadium audience since the 1937 opener with Drake (14,955).

What the gathering of mostly students will take in includes junior Shayne Simon and sophomore Marist Liufau rising to the top of the depth chart at buck linebacker, former cornerback Shaun Crawford starting at strong safety and freshman Clarence Lewis in a dead heat on the depth chart with junior TaRiq Bracy to start at cornerback.

The Simon/Liufau revelation, incidentally, was followed hours later Monday by the announcement that preseason No. 1 buck Jordan Genmark Heath has exited the roster and will seek a transfer after graduating at the end of the semester.

On the offensive side of the ball, Davis starts over Keys at slot receiver, Javon McKinley over Braden Lenzy at field receiver and Brock Wright over Tommy Tremble at tight end to go along with the previously announced depth chart bombshell of redshirt freshman Kyren Williams and true freshman Chris Tyree topping the running back pecking order.

Tyree is also projected to return kickoffs.

Keep in mind August quarantines and isolations influenced some depth chart decisions, so there could be some flip-flopping as the season goes along. Also, at some positions, the line between No. 1 and No. 2 — and sometimes beyond — is purposefully blurred.

Then again, just to have a relevant depth chart in September is an accomplishment in and of itself, given the obstacles that seemed to steep at times to get here. Yet Kelly didn’t get too mesmerized in the draining details of getting the team to the starting line to forget what’s possible if the season plays out to its scheduled finish.

“I think you always want to have a sense of who you are leading into the opener,” he said. “I think we were evolving later than we have been in years past because of some of the distractions, but I think I’ve got a pretty good sense and feel for who we are.”

Notre Dame starting quarterback Ian Book will be in a bubble of sorts this season when he’s not at practice or in class.

No. 10 NOTRE DAME (0-0) vs. DUKE (0-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 19½