Ian Book misunderstood the question. Following Notre Dame’s 36–3 mid-November victory over Syracuse, which put the Fighting Irish one win away from an undefeated regular season, a reporter asked the first-year starting quarterback about what had changed in his life over the past two months.
“Nothing much, really,” Book said. The response earned a few chuckles. How is that possible? At the start of the season, Book was a second-stringer and few outside South Bend knew his name. Now he’s the guy leading Notre Dame to its first berth in the College Football Playoff, the quarterback he began the season backing up intends to transfer after this season, and his parents are getting Facebook messages from friends they haven’t heard from in 20 years. Really, nothing has changed?
“Everything has been moving fast,” Book said. “You snap your fingers and you’ve got one more game in the regular season. It’s crazy. It’s good to sit back every once in a while and think about how this whole season has gone.”
When Book said nothing had changed, what he meant was this: He’s still going to bed around midnight and waking up at 6:30. He’s doing his schoolwork. He’s going to practice and watching film. He’s preparing to start every week, just like he did when he was a backup. It’s the same grind he’s been living since arriving on campus three years ago.
“Ian was always a cool, calm and collected guy,” says junior cornerback Julian Love, Book’s roommate and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. “At home, he’s the chillest guy. His head hasn’t blown up from being a star. He’s remained humble. I think that’s what’s special about him. Obviously he’s a huge talent. He knew his time was coming.”
It wasn’t always obvious to everyone though.
Brian Kelly’s decision to make a switch at quarterback in September changed the Notre Dame season. Despite a 3–0 start, the offense was stalling under senior Brandon Wimbush. He was 12–3 as a starter in his career, including a season-opening win over Michigan on Sept. 1. Last season he relied on his feet while he struggled with consistency as a passer, and in the first quarter of a 21–17 Citrus Bowl win against LSU, he was benched in favor of Book. (He never threw for more than 300 yards in a game.) But in the offseason Wimbush worked diligently to improve. Last winter he sought out a coach on the West Coast to help with his mechanics and spent many hours with offensive coordinator Chip Long. Wimbush is a smart player, beloved by his coaches and teammates (he and Book are close friends and have roomed together on road trips), but he couldn’t nail down the offense.
That’s why, heading into Notre Dame’s first road game of the year at Wake Forest on Sept. 22, Kelly made the change.
Book was ready. After spring ball he felt like his time might be coming. Says Rick Book, Ian’s father, “I kept asking him, ‘How’s it going?’ And he kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’m going to get my chance.’ ”
Against the Demon Deacons, Book completed 25 of 34 passes for 325 yards with two touchdowns and ran for three more in a 56–27 win. He led the offense—which had maxed out at 24 points in the previous three games under Wimbush—to eight touchdowns and 566 total yards, and he connected with 10 different receivers.
Book’s first six starts were brilliant. He averaged 301.8 yards per game and threw for 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He was making adjustments on the fly, extending plays with his legs and throwing accurately while on the move. After a victory over Syracuse, Orange coach Dino Babers called Book “slippery, like an eel,” and a “jackrabbit” in praise of his mobility.
Before suffering a rib injury against Northwestern on Nov. 3, Book was leading the country in completion percentage—and this when Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins were putting up sparkling numbers. The injury sidelined him for the win over Florida State and affected his sharpness, but he returned to lead Notre Dame to road wins on opposite coasts against Syracuse and USC.
Book’s accuracy is what distinguished him from Wimbush. Book is fifth in the country with a 70.4 completion percentage, while Wimbush completed only 49.5% of his passes last season and 52.9% in 2018.
“Ian has always been very efficient,” says Eric Cavaliere, Book’s coach at Oak Ridge High in El Dorado Hills, Calif. “He has a quick release and throws the ball to the right place. You can see him making really good, quick decisions.”
Rick first realized his son’s throwing prowess when he was eight, as the two were playing catch with a baseball in front of their house. Rick got down in a catcher’s crouch on one side of the street, and Ian started throwing strikes.
“My wife came out and asked how it was going and I said, ‘Watch this,’” Rick says. “I held my glove in the same spot, and 10 times in a row he threw a strike right in my glove. I never moved my glove. My wife said, ‘Is that good?’ And I said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’”
A few years later, when Ian started playing tackle football, he was the quarterback on a peewee team that went 10–0. At Oak Ridge, he was a three-year starter, winning the job as a sophomore by beating out a senior. In his first year Ian led the team to a 12–2 record, losing in the playoffs to Folsom and its four-star quarterback prospect Jake Browning (who became a four-year starter at Washington).
Book was a three-star recruit who didn’t garner much interest from Power 5 programs. Coaches loved his accuracy and mechanics and told his parents so at camps. But Book was six feet tall and didn’t awe anyone with his 4.75 time in the 40. He was the No. 20 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class according to the 247Sports composite rankings, while Shea Patterson (now at Michigan), Jacob Eason (Washington) and K.J. Costello (Stanford) topped the list.
Notre Dame wasn’t interested until Book verbally committed to Washington State. Mike Sanford Jr. (who later left Notre Dame to coach Western Kentucky) had offered Book a scholarship when he was the offensive coordinator at Boise State. After he became the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame in April 2015, Sanford still wanted Book. He made an unofficial visit to South Bend in August ’15 and was enthralled by the Irish tradition. The night before Kelly made him an offer, Ian and his family rode bicycles around campus. When they reached Touchdown Jesus, somebody turned on the lights, riling up hundreds of fireflies and creating an otherworldly scene. That moment helped make Ian’s decision. A few days later, he called the five programs that had offered him a scholarship—including Washington State—to say thank you, but he was going to Notre Dame.
“He told me, ‘Even if I never play, I have to go there and get that experience,’” Rick says.
At Notre Dame, Book waited. When quarterback DeShone Kizer, now with the Packers, announced that he was declaring for the NFL draft following the 2016 season, Wimbush was anointed the starter for ’17. It seemed reasonable to assume that Wimbush, then a junior, would hold the job for two years, after which Phil Jurkovec, a hotshot recruit who is now a freshman, would take over. To some observers, Ian looked more like an afterthought than the heir apparent.
But there were signs that Book might sneak in there. Following Notre Dame’s 2017 spring game, Kelly had said that Book “throws strikes, rarely misses an open receiver, can see the field very well.” Then he added, “[Book] runs the offense very well. I mean, I think, you know we all came into the spring talking about Brandon Wimbush, and rightly so. The starting quarterback at Notre Dame is a big topic. It’s a big story. But the story beneath the story for me was, Who the heck is going to be the No. 2 quarterback? Because if you guys have followed us long enough, we’ve used our No. 2 here quite a bit.”
Especially when No. 2 becomes No. 1.
Brian Kelly has seen Book get rattled only once. After the Syracuse game, Kelly told a story of something that happened during Book’s redshirt freshman year. The quarterback was 10 pounds under weight and thought he could outsmart strength coach Matt Balis at the next weigh-in. As Kelly tells the story, Book put a 10-pound plate in his shorts. Balis found out, lit into Book and made him run.
“He got rattled on that day,” Kelly said, smiling. “He’s going to hate that I told that story.”
On the field, though, Kelly has never seen Book flustered: “He is really steady, takes the information, processes it very well,” Kelly said. Book showed that steadiness last Jan. 1 when he came off the bench to throw a game-winning touchdown to beat LSU in the Citrus Bowl. He did it again in November when, despite a rib injury suffered in the first quarter, he passed for 343 yards and two touchdowns in a 31–21 victory over Northwestern. It wasn’t until the two-hour bus ride home from Evanston, Ill., when Book was in too much pain to sit—he stood the whole way—that anyone knew something was wrong.
Three years ago Ian Book arrived at Notre Dame as an undersized and under-recruited, but also motivated, backup. The folks back home never had a doubt about what he could do if given the chance.
“The whole town here is buzzing,” says Cavaliere, his high school coach. “He’s doing good things on such a high level, but when you watch him play, it looks like Ian Book playing football in the way he always has. So it’s like, ‘Holy mackerel, check this out!’ But at the same time, it’s not unbelievable, because we’ve seen it before.”
So maybe Book was right after all. His life hasn’t changed that much.