Notre Dame's Ian Book, Alabama's Najee Harris share connection as former 7-on-7 teammates
Terrance Leonard watched in Bryant-Denny Stadium as one of his former players made a touchdown catch that looked familiar.
Not that the play wasn’t unusual. A running back secured a back-shoulder throw before tumbling into the end zone. That running back brings a heftier frame at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. And he hauled in the pass over linebacker Patrick Queen, a first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft.
But Alabama’s Najee Harris grabbing that 15-yard touchdown in a 46-41 loss to LSU last season felt like déjà vu for Leonard. He had seen that before. That time, the throw came from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
When Harris was in high school, Leonard said he saw Harris catch a similar touchdown pass from Notre Dame’s Ian Book.
For two years, Book and Harris were a dynamic duo on Leonard’s TMP Elite 7-on-7 team. Together, they won multiple tournaments on the West Coast. They also grew up within 100 miles from each other in Northern California. During the high school football season, Book played for Oak Ridge in El Dorado Hills. Harris attended Antioch High.
And for the first time since serving as captains on the same 7-on-7 team, they will meet again on Friday.
Led by Book, the No. 4 Irish (10-1) will face Harris and the top-ranked Crimson Tide (11-0) at the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl semifinal in Arlington, Texas (4 p.m. EST on ESPN).
“This is a very special moment in their lives to be able to cross paths again like this,” Leonard said. “Ian is the kind of person who is always checking on our entire hall of fame of players. He’s always, ‘How is so-and-so doing? How’s this guy doing?’”
Harris and Book were teammates, but they certainly were not perceived as equals. Harris verbally committed to Alabama as a sophomore before eventually finishing as a five-star recruit in the 2017 class. Rivals ranked Harris as the top overall player that cycle, too.
As a member of the 2016 class, Book earned a three-star rating from 247Sports and Rivals. He verbally pledged to Washington State before eventually flipping to Notre Dame.
So at TMP Elite games, Harris was the star. In California, Harris was the star. Nationally, Harris was the star.
“The plan was if we were ever down, you just throw it up and Najee would go catch it,” Book said. “That’s how we were able to win some games. And he was by far the best player I played with at that time. And he is still one of them for sure. He’s an unbelievable player. Really good person. Happy for him. He’ll be playing a lot of football in the future as well.”
Their long-term expectations looked much different. But Harris and Book similarly found success after being patient to start their careers.
Harris did not become Alabama’s full-time starter until year three after sharing a backfield with future NFL running backs in Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris. Book joined a loaded quarterback room that included Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush. He did not play in year one.
After that 2016 season, Kizer departed for the NFL Draft and Zaire transferred to Florida. Book leaped Wimbush on the depth chart in 2018 and fended off former four-star recruit Phil Jurkovec.
In five years, Book went from fourth-team status to winningest quarterback in Irish history. The graduate senior holds a 30-4 record as a starter and ranks among the top in school history across plenty of the major statistical categories.
“I thought if Ian Book was a Southern California guy instead of a Northern California guy,” Leonard said, “he would have been a four-star guy without a problem. I didn’t judge Ian based on his stars. I judged Ian based on what I saw.
"I saw him as a true leader. I saw him as a guy who could find weaknesses among defenses at every level from when he was a sophomore to a junior. He always had a superb I.Q and leadership skills.”
No. 2 Clemson contained Book to 219 yards on 20-of-28 passing and minus-35 yards on 10 carries in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 19. Book will need to play much better against Alabama than he did in that 34-10 loss.
The Crimson Tide defense completed the regular season at No. 12 in run defense (107.6 rushing yards yielded per game) and No. 20 in scoring defense (19.5 points allowed per game).
“He needs to play within himself and within the system,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “I don’t think there’s anything heroic he needs to do that’s going to single-handedly win us the game. If he operates the system and makes decisive and good decisions to put our offense in position to be successful, then we are going to have a chance to win the game.”
After eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards for a second straight season, Harris is projected to be one of the first running backs selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. His 24 rushing touchdowns were five more than the second-highest total nationally through the regular season. The senior also came in at No. 3 in rushing yards (1,262) and No. 11 in rushing yards per game (114.7).
The Irish defense looks poised to challenge Harris, ranking No. 15 against the run nationally (110.5 rushing yards allowed per game).
“Our defense has got to step up,” Book said. “It’s a great challenge for us. Our guys are excited for it. But just to be able to play with him, when he was a five-star, big-name recruit, to be on our 7-on-7 team together was awesome. And it was really just a 50-50 ball. Just throw it up to Najee and he’ll go get it. And he did that pretty much every time.”
Notre Dame left guard Aaron Banks also played with Harris on TMP Elite for one year. Irish sophomore cornerback Isaiah Rutherford and 2021 signees Khari Gee and JoJo Johnson played for TMP Elite, too.
Leonard does not plan to make the trip to see his former players but managed to keep in touch with them this week.
“They got along very well,” Leonard said. “From different walks of life, but they talked about each other’s experiences. And that’s what made them closer. They still keep in contact. We already have a group text set up with them. So we are going to continue talking all week, and then we’ll turn it off right before the game.”