Ian Book on taking over for Brandon Wimbush and the offense being close to breaking out
Mike Berardino, IndyStar
SOUTH BEND – There’s no arguing with how things turned out for all parties involved, but it’s fascinating to consider how different the college football landscape might look this fall if Ian Book had stuck with his first college commitment.
These days, Book’s star is on the rise after leading third-ranked Notre Dame to seven straight wins following the stunning September demotion of incumbent quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Saturday night against USC in Los Angeles, Book will attempt to finish off a perfect regular season that should vault the Irish into the College Football Playoff for the first time.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Book says, “to be able to go back to my home state and play against a team I grew up watching.”
Things easily could have gone in a different direction for Book, Wimbush and even Heisman Trophy candidate Gardner Minshew II of Washington State, aka The Mustache.
Back in the summer of 2015, Book was a lightly recruited quarterback from Oak Ridge High School in Northern California. A consensus three-star prospect, Book was rated the No. 21 pro-style quarterback by 247sports.com.
After drawing early interest from Boise State but “not that much” attention from UCLA, the favorite college football team of his youth, Book gave his commitment to Washington State. Passing-game guru Mike Leach, then coming off three straight losing seasons to start his tenure in Pullman, made Book his top quarterback target for the recruiting Class of 2016.
“I thought he was a quality player,” Leach told IndyStar. this week through a school spokesman. “I thought he would be a great fit at WSU.”
Among the traits that drew Leach to Book was his ability to fit speeding footballs into the tightest of windows.
“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. He was excited about his opportunity at Notre Dame, so he took it.”
The opportunity at Notre Dame came about when Mike Sanford, the former Boise State quarterback who spent one year (2014) at his alma mater as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was hired away by Irish coach Brian Kelly for the same role.
Because Sanford had recruited Book for the Broncos, it was only natural that he would stay in touch with the promising young quarterback and his family. When Book let it be known he’d be willing to visit South Bend, Sanford made the arrangements and the famed campus worked its magic.
“I just couldn’t turn it down; it felt like home,” Book said. “I really loved the tradition, and the other thing was having the best football and the best education at the same time. When I came here I was shocked with the tradition. There was really no match.”
Ian Book returns from injury to lead Notre Dame to 36-3 win over Syracuse
Even though he would be adding 1,300 miles each way to his family’s travel itinerary on fall Saturdays, Book was smitten.
“People always say they feel like they’re home when they commit somewhere,” Book said. “It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s really how I felt when I was here. Even though it’s a long way from home, I was excited. It just felt like the right place.”
Sanford, as it turned out, was just passing through South Bend. The fast-rising coach was hired after two seasons with the Irish to run the Western Kentucky program, leaving Book in the capable hands of his current coordinator, Chip Long, and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees, who played at Notre Dame.
“Mike was definitely the lead on Ian Book’s recruitment,” Kelly said. “There’s no doubt. I really liked Ian. I got a chance to spend some time with the family in the recruiting process. He was extremely efficient and was a good fit. He was the kind of guy for Notre Dame.”
Before any of that, however, Book had to make one of the toughest phone calls of his young life. He called Leach in early August 2015 and tell him he wasn’t coming.
“Those are obviously hard, but it’s also part of the game,” Book said. “You want to go where you think is best for your future. I think coaches do understand that at the end of the day, but it’s obviously a very hard phone call.”
Neither side offered much detail on the call itself, but Book said he appreciated the way Leach took the news “very respectfully” without trying to lay a guilt trip on him.
“He was fine,” Book said. “He got on with it, but it was hard.”
After three years with Luke Falk at the controls, the Cougars brought in Minshew this season as a graduate transfer from East Carolina, where he was a two-year starter.
No one could have expected Minshew to become a national sensation, especially after he started out at a junior college in Mississippi and later de-committed from Alabama to join Leach, but that’s exactly what’s happened.
While Heisman voters receive “Mustache Mentality” T-shirts in the mail, Minshew has been slinging footballs all over the lot for the 10-1 Cougars, ranked eighth by the College Football Playoff committee. With 4,325 passing yards and 36 touchdown passes, Minshew leads the nation by nearly 500 yards in the first category and is tied for the lead in the second.
Book had been leading the nation in completion percentage until 14 incompletions last Saturday in a 36-3 win over Syracuse, his first game back after suffering bruised ribs and a kidney contusion on Nov. 3 at Northwestern. He now ranks second at 72.6 percent while Minshew (70.4 percent) is fifth, but Jimmy Clausen’s single-season school record (68.0 percent in 2009) is in jeopardy.
Book has a comfortable edge in passer rating, where he ranks seventh to Minshew’s 26th, but Minshew is getting to fire 52.5 pass attempts per game while Book is more judiciously averaging 24.1 in a balanced Irish offense.
Does Book ever wonder how much fun he’d be having if he’d stuck to Plan A and reported to Pullman? Who knows, maybe he’d be the one with the flowing mustache and the gaudy individual stats while Minshew was sitting behind Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama.
“I really liked Washington State,” Book said. “I think that passing attack is what a lot of quarterbacks would like to play in.”
Then again, Book seems to be doing just fine where he landed. A fan of Purdue product Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers during his high school days, Book has studied former Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield since getting to Notre Dame.
Their frames and playing styles are similar, so the connection makes sense.
“Once I got to college, I really liked Baker Mayfield and tried to play like him a little bit,” Book said. “I tried to find someone a little bit shorter who can extend the play and kind of play a similar game to me. There’s a couple of quarterbacks out there, but I really liked watching Baker Mayfield. Some people would say it, but he was someone I ended up finding.”
All Mayfield did was win a Heisman Trophy and go first overall in the NFL Draft. A national championship, however, eluded him, as it almost certainly will elude Minshew.
With three more wins this season, Book could outdo both of them.
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