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Geyer: Book club

| Saturday, November 28, 2020

I believe I owe Ian Book an apology.

Just over a year ago, in October of 2019, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that he hadn’t improved between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. I stand by what I said — since winning the starting job in 2018, Book was on an upward trajectory, poised to come out in 2019 as one of the best quarterbacks in the country. But once the season started, it seemed to me that he missed the opportunity to improve between years. His completion percentage dropped 8%, to 60.2%. He had, at times, an uncharacteristic struggle with the deep ball. He couldn’t quite handle the blitz. He looked frazzled in the pocket, and he wouldn’t reliably work through his reads before scrambling. I wasn’t upset because he was bad, but I was upset simply because I believed he had failed to reach his full potential. Now, exactly 13 months later, that’s no longer true. The way he played last night made that clear.

Book is, first and foremost, an athlete. He’s always had a natural ability to find his targets and have success in designed runs. Last year, that athleticism lacked a particular finesse. This year, it doesn’t.

Book hasn’t thrown a pick since Week One against Duke. He’s attempted 237-straight passes without an interception. That’s a school record, one which used to belong to Brady Quinn. For more context, through nine games last year, Book had already thrown six interceptions.

He rushed for four touchdowns in 2019. In 2020, with at least two games still remaining in the season, he’s already rushed for six. With the win against North Carolina, he improved his record as a starter to 29-3, joining Quinn, Ron Powlus and Tom Clements in first place for the title of winningest starter in school history. Should the Irish stay perfect this year, it will be Book’s second undefeated regular season.

But in order to really understand the depth of Book’s skill, it only takes looking at a few of yesterday’s key plays.

John Quackenbos | Boston College Athletics
Irish fifth-year senior Ian Book runs with the ball during Notre Dame’s 45-31 win over Boston College on Nov. 14. Book is now second all-time in Notre Dame history in career passing yards behind only Brady Quinn, and is second in career rushing yards for a quarterback behind only Tony Rice.

First (and most obviously) there’s the forward pitch to Michael Mayer. That was cold. It’d be easy to chalk that completion up to luck, but Book isn’t stupid. He wouldn’t have made that toss if he didn’t think it would work. His anticipation of Mayer’s movement, his execution on the backhand flick, his overall field awareness? That takes more than luck. It was scary, but it was a damn good play.

Then let’s talk about the third Irish drive of the game, which was just four plays and less than two minutes long.

Deep into his own territory on first-and-10, Book dropped back and looked long for Javon McKinley. Carolina back Tony Grimes blitzed and Kyren Williams missed the block, and Grimes connected with the quarterback, swatting Book’s right arm down. But Book kept hold of the ball, composed himself again, and connected with McKinley for 43 yards.

The drive’s next play was a designed quarterback run. Book hesitated for a second after the snap, waiting for his blockers, then found a seam down the middle. He swerved right, throwing up a stiff arm to extend his run, and eventually peeled out of bounds after a 33-yard gain. With just two plays, the Irish found themselves in the red zone.

The next play was a Williams 2-yard carry that didn’t do much. But, on the drive’s final play (second-and-goal on the UNC 4) Book showed his skill once more. The call seemed to be for a throw. Ben Skowronek and Avery Davis stacked on the left, and Mayer and McKinley lined up on the right. At the snap, Skowronek and Davis ran outs, Mayer a go and McKinley a screen across the middle. But the snap was errant, and Liam Eichenburg, Josh Lugg and Robert Hainsey couldn’t hold their blocks, so Book found himself confronted with two Carolina linemen. But unfazed, he backpedaled, rolled around and made both Tar Heels miss as Williams peeled wide to get open. Book spotted his guy, squared his hips and made the connection, which Williams took to the end zone to even the score at 14 each.

In just one drive, Book showcased almost every facet of his game — his ability to utilize deep threats, his skill on his own legs, his patience and creativity when a play goes wrong. It’s hard to teach those things. They’re borne naturally out of skill and experience.

Robert Willets | The Raleigh News and Observer
Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on from the sideline during Notre Dame’s 31-17 win over North Carolina on Friday, Nov. 27. Kelly has continually referred to Book as a ‘winner’ and even went so far as to critique a USA Today reporter who snubbed Book from his list of the top-10 collegiate quarterbacks.

There are five or six other plays you could point to from last night that display the same athleticism. Book was able to rescue broken plays, revive dying drives and prove that there’s more to the Notre Dame offense than the run game. It’s been building all season, but last night, in what I believe was one of his most complete games of the season, Book cemented his place among the top-10 quarterbacks in college football.

So we’ve come full circle. Book has seemingly reached his full potential. And I have to say, eating my words is much more fun that I thought it’d be — turns out, winning tastes good.

Editor’s note: this story was updated on Nov. 29 at 11:07 a.m. EST. A previous version suggested that Kevin Austin Jr. was playing for Notre Dame at wide receiver against North Carolina, but the correct player was Avery Davis. Austin is out for the season with a broken foot.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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