James: Notre Dame needs to use Ian Book's success to start cycle of better quarterback play

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The questions offered Brian Kelly an opportunity to point to Ian Book’s selection in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft as a turning point for Notre Dame’s quarterback room.

“Certainly the recruiting success and NFL Draft success seems to be repeating itself with offensive linemen and tight ends,” I said. “You haven’t necessarily had that with quarterbacks at Notre Dame during your tenure.

“Does that add to the significance of Ian Book being drafted in the fourth round? And does that maybe speak to and give examples to recruits of what Tommy Rees can do as a quarterbacks coach for those guys?”

Instead, the Notre Dame head coach wanted to push back at the premise.

“I’m not sure how to answer the question,” Kelly said Monday morning, less than 48 hours after the three-day, seven round draft wrapped up with nine former Irish players being selected.

“I think we’ve had success with quarterbacks. I mean, I don’t know what success means other than my job is to win football games and develop our players to the best of their ability. Whether that means that they become great NFL players, we’re going to prepare the best we can. Sometimes it’s out of our control what happens at that next level. They have to get in the right place, the right fit — things of that nature.”

Kelly went on to say he understood why the offensive linemen and tight ends were cited. During Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure, which started with the 2010 season, nine offensive linemen and eight tight ends have been drafted upon the conclusion of their Irish careers. All nine of those offensive linemen and five of those tight ends were selected in the first three rounds of their respective drafts.

Kelly added that the wide receiver position has regularly produced draft picks, too. Seven former Irish wide receivers have been drafted during Kelly’s tenure, with four of them selected in the first three rounds.

But Notre Dame’s quarterback position hasn’t been as highly coveted by the NFL during Kelly’s 102-win regime. Book, who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints last Saturday, became just the second ND quarterback drafted under Kelly. DeShone Kizer, a second-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2017, was the first.

“Quarterback’s a little bit more difficult, right?” Kelly said. “It’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“Some people would have never thought Ian Book was going to get picked in the fourth round. Now he has a chance to compete for a starting position. That’s the one that’s a little bit of an outlier.

“We have (offensive coordinator) Tommy Rees here, who’s played the position. I have great trust in his ability to develop our quarterbacks, and we’ve done a pretty good job of developing a quarterback that can help us win games, and we expect to do the same moving forward.”

Kelly has valid points. Once a quarterback is drafted, many factors beyond where he played college football will impact how successful he becomes in the NFL. And yes, Book becoming a fourth-round draft pick exceeded the expectations of many draft analysts, just as he exceeded the expectations of recruiting analysts who pegged him as a three-star prospect.

If Book becomes a successful starter in the NFL, that’s an even bigger win for Notre Dame. Just like it would have been had Kizer fared better as a starting quarterback for the Browns.

But the Irish don’t have to wait to see how Book’s NFL career plays out to start cashing in on his draft status and success at Notre Dame. Despite Book’s limitations as an undersized quarterback (6 foot) without elite arm strength, he became a fourth-round draft pick and the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history under the tutelage of Kelly and Rees.

Rivals ranked Book as the No. 15 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class. Only one other quarterback ranked higher than Book was drafted after finishing his college career at one school: Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who was selected in the first round by Washington in 2019 and was ranked as the No. 5 pro-style quarterback.

Jacob Eason, who was ranked as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback by Rivals, is the only quarterback ranked ahead of Book to be drafted following a transfer. The Indianapolis Colts selected Eason in the fourth round in 2020 after he finished a college career at Washington that started at Georgia.

All that information speaks to how well Notre Dame identified and developed Book, which should be part of the recruiting pitch Notre Dame makes to quarterback prospects. The Irish already have a verbal commitment in the 2022 class from Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic’s Steve Angeli. Rivals rates him as a four-star recruit and the No. 13 pro-style quarterback.

Rees is aiming even higher early in the 2023 recruiting class. Only three quarterbacks finishing their sophomore years in high school have reported Notre Dame offers: Arch Manning, Dante Moore and Malachi Nelson. Rivals ranks them as the top three pro-style quarterbacks in the class and among the top 30 prospects overall. Both Manning and Nelson have already received five-star ratings.

The Irish haven’t signed a quarterback with a five-star rating from Rivals since Gunner Kiel in 2012. Kiel, who transferred to Cincinnati following his freshman season, stands as a glaring example that a five-star rating doesn’t guarantee future success. But recruiting five-star quarterbacks also gave Clemson Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, both of whom won national titles for the Tigers.

The last two national champions were led by quarterbacks who weren’t given five stars by Rivals. Alabama’s Mac Jones was a four-star recruit and the No. 9 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class. LSU’s Joe Burrow, who started his career at Ohio State, was a three-star recruit and the No. 24 dual-threat quarterback in the 2015 class.

But both Burrow and Jones ended their college careers as first-round draft picks. That’s been the blueprint for each of the last five national champions in the College Football Playoff era. Watson started the trend in 2016. Tua Tagovailoa, a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, rescued Alabama’s 2017 season when Jalen Hurts, a second-round pick in 2020, was struggling. Then came Lawrence in 2018, Burrow in 2019 and Jones in 2020.

Maybe Notre Dame can win a national championship with a quarterback like Jake Coker, who went undrafted after leading Alabama to the title following the 2016 season. But if Kelly wants to win the one thing that’s eluded him at Notre Dame, confronting the quarterback deficit should be a priority.

For as great as Book was for Notre Dame throughout his career, the NFL Draft proved he wasn’t as coveted as the quarterbacks he lost to in the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2018 (Lawrence) and 2020 (Jones).

All five of those first-round draft picks who won national championships were surrounded with plenty of talent around them. Notre Dame’s draft results on the offensive line, at tight end and at wide receiver have given the Irish opportunities to compete and close the gap with title contenders.

Will Book be the start of a cycle that builds even better quarterbacks at Notre Dame? That’s the question to which Kelly needs to know the answer.

Both head coach Brian Kelly, left, and quarterback Ian Book, right, won a lot of games at Notre Dame. But even better quarterback play may be required for the Irish to win the elusive national championship in the College Football Playoff era.
DeShone Kizer was the first quarterback to be drafted in the Brian Kelly Era when he was selected in the second round by the Cleveland Browns in 2017.