The bulk of Brian Kelly’s attention this spring at the quarterback position was spent on finding not only a replacement for DeShone Kizer as the starter, but one that could lead the Irish back from a dreadful four-win season.
So far, so good, although Brandon Wimbush – the hands down No. 1 guy – will undoubtedly have some growing pains with three years of eligibility and a lack of meaningful playing experience.
Even less experienced would be the No. 2 quarterback with red-shirt freshman Ian Book and former walk-on Montgomery VanGorder vying for the spot.
Fourteen practices and an impressive Blue-Gold Game performance later, Kelly believes he has a one-two punch at quarterback that can help turn Notre Dame’s fortunes around.
“We all came into the spring talking about Brandon Wimbush and rightly so,” said Kelly following Saturday’s spring finale. “The starting quarterback at Notre Dame is a big topic; it’s a big story.
“But the story beneath for me was who the heck is going to be the No. 2 quarterback because if you guys have followed us, (you know) we’ve used our No. 2 here quite a bit.
“Having that No. 2 and seeing (Book) perform the way he has this spring, for me, has been one of the big stories. Ian has done this all spring.”
Book completed 17-of-22 passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in the Blue-Gold Game, and the performance was every bit as impressive as the statistics.
“He’s exactly what we were hoping for,” said Kelly to the NBC broadcasting crew – Paul Burmeister and Doug Flutie.
Book doesn’t have Wimbush’s size or explosiveness. He doesn’t have the “big arm” of Wimbush. But what he flashed this spring was a guy who could run the offense efficiently, take advantage of Notre Dame’s big receiving corps, throw accurately and create positive plays with his feet.
“I’m just trying to be as confident as possible,” said Book, who worked with the scout team in 2016 and preserved a year of eligibility.
“The mentality here is the next man in and that’s where I’m right now. I feel I can be the starter. Brandon is a great player and today he did really well. I think as the next man in, I could do a good job.”
Book, a 6-foot-0 1/8, 205-pounder out of El Dorado Hills, Calif., originally committed to Washington State and head coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. The Cougars accounted for more than 4,700 yards passing in 2016 – third in the country nationally – which says a lot about how Leach projected Book within his scheme.
The Irish aren’t headed in the same direction offensively as the arrival of offensive coordinator Chip Long portends more double-tight end sets and a greater emphasis on the running game.
But tempo will be a significant part of the new offense, and if Book was a fit for “Air Raid” football in the upper northwest, he should adapt well to Notre Dame’s attack.
“The big difference is the tempo,” said Book of Long’s offense. “That’s something we have a lot of pride in. We want to be that team that has the best tempo.
“It’s a big advantage for us. We obviously have a lot of work to do to be the best tempo team out there, but I really like the new offense. Everyone has bought into the process.”
For Book, the keys are efficiency and accuracy, both of which served him well during his prep career at Oak Ridge High School. A three-year starter, Book threw for 7,632 yards while completing 64.6 percent of his passes. He threw 78 touchdown passes to just 17 interceptions.
As a senior, Book threw for 3,049 yards with 30 touchdown passes and five interceptions. He also rushed for 779 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Earlier this spring, Irish quarterbacks coach Tom Rees was bombarded with questions about Wimbush. Rees insisted that Book, also a young quarterback, had handled himself well and had the requisite skillset to be effective.
“Physically, he can make all the throws, and he’s athletic enough to get outside,” Rees said. “He has a great feel in the pocket, and he does a good job of anticipating throws and being able to anticipate where a defender is going and throw the ball on time.
“He’s been very accurate. When he has his feet set, he rarely misses.”
That accuracy showed itself in the Blue-Gold Game when Book completed 77.2 percent of his tosses. He made an outstanding throw on the run to his right as C.J Sanders settled in and caught the pass for an 11-yard gain. Book also showed good poise when he scanned the field to his right, didn’t like what he saw, and came back to tight end Nic Weishar for an eight-yard gain.
The lone touchdown pass of the scrimmage began with a Book pump fake, which caused cornerback Troy Pride Jr. to bite and run himself out of the play. When Sanders turned it upfield, safety D.J. Morgan couldn’t slide over in time to prevent the 37-yard score.
Book threw behind a couple receivers and his lack of size will be an impediment at times in the pocket where throwing over the big linemen up front will be a challenge. But not all shorter quarterbacks are at a disadvantage, not when you can throw with the accuracy of Book.
“I think I can be a good pocket passer,” Book said. “I like to get outside the pocket and use my feet. There are times when I miss throws because my feet aren’t set. I have to keep working to get through that.
“We have lengthy (receivers) out there, guys who can go up and get the football. They don’t need to be as open because they’re still going to come down with it. It’s definitely a confidence-builder.”
While Book has prepared to be the starter for the Irish, he has no delusions about who sits No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart. But in the one-play-away world of college football, Book knows he has to be prepared to play this fall.
“I feel I’m ready,” Book said. “I’ve put in a lot of work. Mentally, I stay as confident as possible. I can do it if I need to.”