USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg previews the two upcoming College Football Playoff matchups and explains why Oklahoma was awarded the final spot.
USA TODAY Sports
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – For Tom Rees, the template was obvious. The hard part was getting Ian Book to share his vision and recognize his own potential.
That’s why Rees, Notre Dame’s former starting quarterback (2010-13) and current quarterbacks coach, pulled the young backup aside during August training camp and sat him down for a heart to heart.
“I challenged him: ‘Hey, what’s holding you back?’ “ Rees said. “Before the season, I told him, ‘Tell me why you can’t be Drew Brees? You don’t miss. You’re athletic. Why can’t you be Drew Brees?’ “
Book, a redshirt sophomore from El Dorado Hills, Calif., about 30 minutes east of Sacramento, has miles to go to match the accomplishments of Brees, record-breaking passer and Super Bowl-winning leader of the New Orleans Saints.
However, guiding the Fighting Irish to a 12-0 mark and their first spot in the College Football Playoff isn’t a bad opening chapter. Book, who replaced Brandon Wimbush as the starter in Week 4, hasn’t needed much editing as he gets set to face No. 2 Clemson on Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl.
Book missed the Florida State game in November after suffering bruised ribs and a kidney contusion against Northwestern, but he returned to lead the Irish to wins over Syracuse at Yankee Stadium and over Southern California at the Coliseum.
After completing 70.4 percent of his passes, fourth in the nation and two points higher than Jimmy Clausen’s school record from 2009, Book was voted 2018 MVP by his Irish teammates. He threw for at least 260 yards in all eight of his starts, eclipsed 300 yards in half of those and finished with 19 touchdown passes against six interceptions.
A slick operator of the run-pass option, Book also has 250 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Syracuse coach Dino Babers raved about Book’s mobility after a 36-3 loss on Nov. 17.
“Guys get very, very close to him and you think you’ve got him, and then he’s slippery like an eel,” Babers said. “He has the ability, kind of like a punt returner, to go up, to go back, to go in, to go out. Our big guys really had trouble tracking him down.”
And to think, it all began with that friendly intervention back in mid-August.
It helped that Book, listed at a shade over 6 feet and 203 pounds, had grown up watching the similarly undersized Brees and could identify with his game. Book also liked former California quarterback Aaron Rodgers and more recently has studied Baker Mayfield, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick of the Cleveland Browns.
“My point was Drew Brees is so good mentally,” Rees says. “That was where Ian needed to get better, what he could strive to become. I was like, ‘Listen, (Brees) is in charge, he protects the ball, he knows exactly what everyone is supposed to be doing. That’s who you need to become.’ “
Book got the message.
He started spending more and more of his free time at the Guglielmo Athletics Complex. He’d pop in for some additional film study between classes, duck in some more prep time with Rees and offensive coordinator Chip Long before practice, and then often stay late to squeeze in a few more passes to favorite target Miles Boykin, who made 54 catches for 803 yards and eight touchdowns — all team highs.
Boykin, who caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Book with 1:28 left to beat LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl, has said the team knew Book was ready to step in, but the Irish didn’t know he was this ready.
“I’ve been extremely blessed and feel really fortunate to have (Rees) as my coach,” Book said. “He’s done a lot. I can’t even really give him enough credit for teaching me the X’s and O’s.”
Naturally accurate with his passes, going back to his time as a three-year starter at Oak Ridge High School, the three-star recruit initially committed to play for Mike Leach at Washington State. When Mike Sanford, who had recruited Book for Boise State, became offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, he invited Book to tour the famed campus in South Bend.
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Book was admittedly overwhelmed by the history of the football program, and the high-end academics sealed it for him. He called Leach with the bad news in August of 2015.
“I thought he was a quality player,” Leach said through a school spokesman. “I thought he would be a great fit at WSU. He was excited about his opportunity at Notre Dame, so he took it.”
Things worked out just fine for all parties. Gardner Minshew II became a folk hero in Pullman after transferring from East Carolina with a stopover at Alabama. Yet it is fascinating to ponder the numbers Book might have put up in the Cougars’ pass-happy system.
“He was always accurate, and that’s what really stood out,” Leach said. “He also had quick hands and quick feet, which really made him a very good quarterback.”
Long, who replaced Sanford in 2017, likes the way Book adjusts on the fly, especially at halftime. He cites Book’s “ability to rebound” as his most impressive quality.
“If he’s struggling at some point, he has the ability to fix it in-game, which is really rare,” Long said. “To really have success after that, I think, is one of his greatest attributes.”
Now if Book could just figure out what to call Rees, the backup to Everett Golson in 2012, the last time Notre Dame ran the table during the regular season. At 26, Rees is just six years older than Book.
Rees, whose father Bill is Notre Dame’s director of scouting, threw for 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior in 2013. The younger Rees will have the quarterbacks over to his house for pizza and game-watching parties.
“He’s Coach Rees in the (quarterbacks) room,” Book said. “I think I still call him ‘coach’ outside. I call him Tommy sometimes. It’s a little weird. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s probably OK with Tommy, maybe outside the building.”
If Book keeps winning, Rees probably won’t care how his protégé addresses him.