By Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview and Irish 101
It has now been three springs since Ian Book burst on the Fighting Irish quarterback scene. And in three springs time, a portrait of a talented and confident QB has grown sharper each year. So much so that in the spring of 2019, Ian Book now stands as the uncontested leader of the Notre Dame football team.
In the spring of 2017, with the Irish coming off a disastrous 2016, 4-8 slate, the buzz out of South Bend was all about QB Brandon Wimbush. Going into the spring, Wimbush, an electrifying athlete, was anointed as starting quarterback to take over for the NFL bound Deshone Kizer. Ian Book was also in the picture but really had nothing more going for him than the look of a clipboard holder, until the next phenom came along.
On April 22, 2017, despite a somewhat uneven Blue-Gold Game performance by Wimbush and a strong performance by “clipboard holder” Ian Book, there were no doubts in Brian Kelly’s mind who his quarterback was. In the post-game press conference Kelly expressed his satisfaction with Ian Book, but clearly slotted him as his number two Quarterback and proclaimed, “There’s no quarterback controversy”. The job belonged to Brandon Wimbush.
Shortly after Kelly had addressed the media post Blue-Gold game, Ian Book got his chance in front of the Notre Dame media for what for me was the first time, I already had been really impressed by his 17-22, 277 yard 1 touchdown Blue Gold game performance by the then redshirt freshman. The young quarterback stood confidently before a room full of cameras and media and handled everything that came his way. Book sounded the part of a starting QB. To me this package of confidence and skill had the look of a winner. Not too many other people seemed to notice.
Was Kelly guilty of a rush to judgment on Brandon Wimbush? Hindsight indicates that he may have been, but it is understandable. Who can doubt that Kelly was feeling burned by an ill handled QB competition between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer during the disastrous prior season. So, despite some some performance data to the contrary, Brandon Wimbush had the job, even if Ian Book seemed to have won that spring day.
Most of 2017 was all about Brandon Wimbush and the Irish performed well. Wimbush was electrifying at times as the Irish “ran” to 8-1. But the offensive damage being done by Brandon Wimbush was mostly with his legs, his passing accuracy was lousy, 49.5%, and he didn’t seem to make particularly good decisions with the football. Confident decision making, so critical in the passing game, just did not seem to be his forte. And he more than occasionally missed “easy” throws, by big margins. But so long as the Irish were winning, it was good enough.
Ian Book got opportunities here and there, but it wasn’t until the 2017 Citrus Bowl against LSU that Brian Kelly had had enough of Brandon Wimbush’s passing problems. With the score tied at 0-0 with 2 minutes left in the first half, Book got his chance and took over for the rest of the game. A couple of 2 minute drills, good read option decisions and some accurate passing, and he had led the Irish to an exciting victory, which included the game winning 55 yard hook up with Miles Boykin . On the day Book finished 14-19 for 164 yards and 2 touchdown passes.
Book celebrates moments after delivering the winning pass to Miles Boykin in the January 1, 2018 Citrus Bowl.
A signature win and Ian Book was now on everybody’s radar, but Brian Kelly was not convinced. Post game, Kelly declined to name his number 1 going into the Spring. His diplomatic comment when pushed on the topic of his QB depth chart was, “We are very talented at the quarterback position.”
Moments later it was a humble yet confident Ian Book that was presented to the media for the post game interview and now, to some longtime observers, Ian Book had the look not only of a starting QB, but a really good one.
In the Spring of 2018, word was that Brandon Wimbush had tweaked his mechanics and had now added improved passing accuracy to his repertoire. A dose of confidence wouldn’t hurt either, and Brian Kelly seemed to be particularly tuned into building Wimbush’s confidence. After all he had accounted for 30 touchdowns passing and rushing the previous season.
By the time the 2018 Blue-Gold game rolled around Brandon Wimbush remained the starter. The actual Spring game QB performances, seemed to be a wash. On a pass happy day Wimbush, lining up with the first team was 19-33 for 341 yards , 2 TDs, and 1 interception. Book also put up good numbers, 17-30, 292 yards and 1 TD-an 85 yarder to Chase Claypool.
Post-game Brian Kelly declared Wimbush “1A” and Book “1B”. Wimbush had successfully defended his starting role. But, Book, sounding as confident as ever, told me afterwards that his post spring plan included going back to work at his craft, including his hope to spend some time with his personal quarterback coach. Wimbush, who seemed to be pleased with his performance, answered the question with a little less “big picture” involved. Wimbush’s plan was to “Go hang out with Ian Book and spend some good time with him.”
The story of the 2018 season played out in spectacular but arguably predictable fashion. The Irish, led by Brandon Wimbush started strong with a victory over rival Michigan. But in wins over Ball State and Vanderbilt, the offense struggled. Book made appearances in those games in goal line packages and executed his role efficiently.
The Irish were 3-0, and ranked #8 in the nation, but close observers were not sold on Brandon Wimbush. On the weekly radio show I do with Tim Prister, Fighting Irish Preview, I compared watching Wimbush trying to execute the passing game as being akin to, “the sound, of nails on a chalkboard”.
I doubt that Brian Kelly heard or would have cared particularly about that opinion but for game four against Wake Forest, Brian Kelly pulled the trigger and handed the QB1 reins over to Ian Book, and the offense came alive. Book hit 74% of his passes good for 325 yards and 2 touchdowns and he ran for 3 more. The Irish routed the Demon Deacons, 56-27. It was an epic QB coming out party.
With some help from Wimbush along the way while he fought through a nasty rib injury, Book went on to lead the Irish to a 12-0 regular season and the College Football Playoffs. He finished the season as one of the most accurate passers in the nation and as the undisputed number 1 at ND. Going into his third spring there would be no doubt about that.
Oh, and Brandon Wimbush, understandably, decided to transfer and take his 5th year elsewhere.
Entering the Spring of 2019 a new QB face would experience his first spring. Phil Jurkovec , had entered Notre Dame in the fall of 2018 as a 4 star recruit out of Western Pennsylvania. During his High School career Jurkovec had accounted for over 11,000 yards and led his school to to a 16-0 record and the state championship his senior year. Many fans thought he would be be so good that he might even compete with Ian Book.
It was not to be however. Jurkovec struggled with his throwing motion and with making good decisions in the face of a ferocious pass rush that the Irish will be bringing in 2019. Ian Book on the other hand, in contrast to the two previous Springs was now firmly in control at the QB position. And he continued to improve , he threw the deep ball better, and got even better at reacting to blitzes. Ian Book’s confidence after his third spring, it would seem was now flowing over.
Brian Kelly from the post game podium pronounced, that during his play Book was, “in complete control of our offense”.
Minutes after Kelly concluded his comments, the post game interview room became a study of stark contrast. While Phil Jurkovec was struggling to come to grips with his own shaky performance on one side of the room, about 20 feet away the story was quite different.
After having put up a 16-21, 1 TD, 220 yard performance on a windy day, I asked Ian Book about the evolution of his confidence over his three springs. Book smiled a bit and answered, “It’s definitely more….. I definitely feel that and see that, it’s a great feeling.”
Meanwhile, across the room Ian Book “confidently talks about his confidence”. (below-video by Phil Houk)
Ian Book with even more confidence?
Think about it, confidence has been Ian Book’s trademark from the moment he first burst on the ND scene in the Spring of 2017. He went on that year to lead the Irish to victory in the Citrus Bowl. The confidence improved in the Spring of 2018 and he went on to excel on the field and he led the Irish to the College Football Playoff, and now, after Spring football 2019, he says he has, even more…..confidence!
The rest of the College football world may want to take note.
The 2019 Irish season opens at Louisville on Monday, September 2.