Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Notre Dame fans are so, so good, dare I say Elite, at ignoring the objectively good thing right under their noses. It’s a familiar tune, but newly relevant (at least as relevant as it can be, given that the Irish didn’t play football last Saturday and won’t play football this coming Saturday) given the consternation over Phil Jurkovec’s transfer and freshly available stat comparisons to the incumbent he never came all that close to usurping. The conversation around Brian Kelly’s failure to develop quarterbacks during his tenure at ND absolutely has some validity to it, but mostly it’s just perpetually exhausting and not worth the hot air it generates. Case in point: Ian Book.
Book enrolled at Notre Dame as the 35th ranked quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class, and outside of the top 500 players nationally, per the 247 Composite. Since then, all he’s done is win 23 of the 26 games he’s logged as primary signal caller, play a crucial role in a playoff run, and become the first three-year starter at the school since Jimmy Clausen. Part of me wants to simply end the analysis there — that’s really good! stop expecting perfection, weirdos! — but will confess that at times, I get frustrated with his performance, because Notre Dame football is often inherently frustrating.
He took over the reigns from Brandon Wimbush with a value proposition of always-competent game management skills and hyper-accuracy in the short to medium-range (through his first five games as starter in 2018, he hit on 76% of his passes), but that level of precision has slipped from time to time, even in contests like the recent blowout win over USF. And yes, those three losses are to the three best teams he and the Irish have faced. So the fanbase complains, and the earth keeps turning, and the fanbase complains some more. Who cares.
It’s not unreasonable to pine for championship contention, and for the roster to perform up to its potential. But the Irish are regularly in contention for real prizes late into the season (I can almost hear NDNation grousing as I write this, my brain is so far gone), and the roster has performed up to its talent level (although saying that Book has simply lived up to his own expectations would be incorrect and doing him a disservice). As noted above, 34 of his peers apparently showed more talent and promise over the course of their high school careers. There are (objectively!) not nearly that many quarterbacks in this class, let alone college football as a whole, better than Ian Book, imperfect as he may be. That’s a win in its own right, and a material blow to that BK-QB talking point.
It’s not like Book’s recruiting rankings were an obvious initial miss a la Kyle Hamilton. His ceiling is considerably lower than Hamilton’s (or Tyler Buchner’s, for that matter), and he does not have the fundamental all-world physical gifts of a Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence. This does, though, speak to how fickle the business of predicting success at the next level can be, and especially how hard it is to succeed, over and over again, as a college quarterback. We tend to expect linear progression, but that’s often just not how it works! Book’s relative consistency has been a boon to the program, as he and the Irish have managed to put away every single opponent that they “should” have beaten, even when the sledding has been a bit tougher like in the first half of 2019. To drive this point home, we can take a look at the rest of his QB class.
For one, more than two-thirds of those 34 individuals have transferred after their initial enrollment — that’s 23 of 34, or 68%. Wild! One more retired early, and two more switched positions. That leaves eight players in this set who stuck it out at their original destination and position. It’s hard to find a quarterback to plug into the starting lineup, year in and year out.
Book’s statistical resume compares favorably to this group as a whole, too. He’s 2.6% points above the average completion percentage, has a considerably better TD/INT ratio, 36.5 more points than the average QBR, and is a couple ticks above average yards per attempt. He’s beaten KJ Costello, and Jawon Pass, and Chazz Surratt, falling only to the #1 ranked recruit in the class, Shea Patterson (forever an embarrassing footnote). Most importantly, that 88% winning percentage is obviously a healthy margin above the norm.
The list of Book’s peers that have even left a considerable mark on college football or their own programs is pretty slim. Patterson was also solid against lesser competition, but will be largely remembered as a disappointment after committing to Ole Miss as the top-ranked recruit at his position. The only other five-star, Jacob Eason, was serviceable and now holds down a professional backup role, but lost his job at Georgia and ended his college career as a statistically pretty average signal caller. KJ Costello and his Cardinal got boat-raced by the 2018 Irish, and he’s now air-raiding down south. Feleipe Franks and Shane Buechele had their moments, but neither could hold onto QB1 roles at their traditional powerhouses of choice. The only members of this class initially ranked above Book who are clearly head and shoulders above our guy are Dwayne Haskins and Jalen Hurts, with Hurts claiming a ring and both earning an NFL pedigree.
This is all to say that, by just about any objective measure, Ian Book has overperformed throughout his time at Notre Dame. Don’t overthink it. That’s cool and it’s good, and he’ll leave a legacy because of it. I’d encourage everyone to briefly parse the sheet showing each QB’s career stats, both to recognize how Book stands out among them, and to recognize how many busts there are in any given year. Ian Book’s performance as Notre Dame quarterback has made our fandom richer and more fun, and that’s something worth cherishing.