Photo: Ian Book
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly no longer has to explain away speculation he settled for Ian Book as a Plan B recruit. Not after Book's third-straight win as a starter that has lifted the Irish into the College Football Playoff picture.
The stars have finally aligned for Notre Dame now that Kelly has switched from his more glamorous 4-star recruit, Brandon Wimbush, to the very un-Irish like 3-star prospect, Ian Book. Notre Dame's redshirt sophomore quarterback completed 25 of 35 passes for 271 yards with two touchdowns and one interception to beat Virginia Tech 45-23 Saturday in Blacksburg.
After Book didn't play in the season’s first two games – shaky wins under Wimbush over Michigan (24-17) and Ball State (24-16) -- he has assertively replaced the more glamorous Wimbush. Book has thrown eight touchdown passes with one interception while starting wins at Wake Forest (56-27), over Stanford (38-17) and on the Hokies’ field.
The questions Kelly now fields are easier. Book seems to have a special feel for the game, right coach?
“I think a lot of the things with the quarterback position require sense and feel for the game,” he told the media after Saturday’s win. “He's throwing the ball at over 71 percent completion percentage and a lot of that has got to happen with a feel. He sees things very well. He missed a couple of throws and even missing a couple of throws, he was over 70 percent completion.
“So I think you're right. I think it’s one thing to be in a progression read offense and go through your progressions, but you've got to move your feet and find open receivers. He does a really good job of that.”
Book might have been doing it much earlier as a starter, but Kelly stuck too long with Wimbush.
Wimbush was supposed to be the strong-armed mobile quarterback, but he wasn’t. In 2017, he didn’t always escape trouble -- despite some dizzying scrambles. He also only completed 49.5 percent of his passes. Notre Dame lurched to a 10-3 record that sounds impressive in wins-losses when boosted by a bowl win – led by Book -- but it left the Irish outside the CFP picture.
Book is smallish as a college QB as a 6-foot, 203-pounder, but he has arm strength and can escape trouble. At Virginia Tech, he scrambled to complete a 40-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin for a 31-16 lead with 4:59 left in the third quarter. The game was never close again.
“One of the things with him is he's got a pretty good sense and feel, and he was able to step up and feel the rush,” Kelly said. “Our offensive linemen really enjoy blocking for him because he senses the rush and slid to his left and found Boykin there in that situation.”
It’s now obvious Book is the choice to lead the Irish, but in the recruiting game Kelly couldn’t leave any doubt in the minds of future 5-star and 4-star prospects that he gave up too soon on Wimbush.
After all, Wimbush turned down Alabama; Book flipped from Washington State. Notre Dame’s quarterback prospects don’t have Washington State on their radar.
But Book was the exception, having de-committed from Washington State to accept a Notre Dame offer. It came after Notre Dame lost out on high-profile recruits like Shea Patterson, who is starting at Michigan after he transferred as a starter at Ole Miss, and Jacob Eason, Georgia’s starter, among others.
As the list of available quarterbacks dwindled, then-Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford informed Kelly about Book. Sanford had been Boise State’s OC in 2014 when he lost out on Book to Washington State. Sanford, who took the Notre Dame job in 2015, sold Kelly on Book and together they convinced Book to flip on Washington State shortly before his 2015 senior season began at El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Oak Ridge.
Book was just an afterthought when he arrived in the fall of 2016. Notre Dame’s 2016 quarterback stable had Malik Zaire, the 2015 starter that was a 4-star in the Class of 2013; DeShone Kizer, a 4-star in the Class of 2014 that ultimately took over the 2016 starting job from Zaire; and Wimbush.
But once Zaire transferred out and Kizer declared early for the 2017 NFL draft, Kelly was met in 2017 spring drills by reporters re-visiting Book’s lack of recruiting stature.
That was then, this is now. Earlier in the week before the Virginia Tech game, Kelly was asked what he liked about Book – as opposed to justifying having recruited him.
“Those are easy questions,” Kelly said. “Certainly we could be here for a long time or a short time. The short time would be I like that he wins. The more in-depth would be he has certainly created a confidence level amongst the entire unit.
"And whether it's escapability, where he can sense the rush and that builds a confidence level with your offensive line that they know that even if they maybe don't sustain a block, that they're going to be okay. So I don't have to grab or hold. Wide receivers knowing that they're going to get the football in a position where they can run after the catch. I could go on and on and on. But he's won football games.”
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