During his weekly Monday press conference, head coach Brian Kelly was asked about the progress of quarterback Ian Book. Kelly talked about Book having made improvements in some areas, needing to make more improvements in others. He then finished his answer with a quote saying, “he’s got the ability to be explosive and I think that’s the next step for him.”
This last part is really what it comes down to for Ian Book and his evolution as a quarterback. And, in my opinion, that explosiveness will come with improved decision making. I see it as less of a physical problem and more of a decisiveness and an aggression problem. The opportunities for big plays are available to Book and the offense, he needs to do a better job of identifying when those opportunities present themselves. This is something to popped up quite a bit in the game against Virginia and is something we’ve seen throughout the season.
A lot of the missed opportunities come from mistakes made pre-snap or a lack of confidence in throwing the pass that will lead to a big play, although if I had to guess I’d say it’s more of the latter.
It’s second and nine and Notre Dame comes out in a four-wide set with Kmet in the slot with Chase Claypool outside of him. Virginia is playing cover two defense, and Notre Dame runs Kmet up the middle, with Claypool on a streak outside of him, with Finke going up the seam in the opposite slot, and Michael Young running a quick out to the far side. The read here is Kmet up the middle, designed to split the two safeties, with Claypool and Finke occupying them right up the sideline and the field. If one of the safeties jumps Kmet, Book can throw to the receiver to that side. If they jump the routes by Claypool and Finke, Kmet will be wide open. That’s precisely what happens here.
Not only do both safeties jump the receivers, they completely turn their backs to Kmet, who is running free down the middle of the field with no one even looking at him. This is an easy read for Book to make. But, he holds the ball a tad too long and then compounds his mistake by spinning out of the pocket instead of stepping up and effectively giving up on the play. If he steps up and shuffles left, Kmet is home free for a touchdown. This throw needed to be decided pre-snap, based on the movement of the safeties.
Taking Advantage Of Chase Claypool
This first example is a positive play, a gain of 27 yards to Chris Finke on a crossing route, but you’ll note the opportunity for more is there if Ian wants it, and he doesn’t take it later in the game.
Notre Dame has 31 personnel in the game (three receivers, one tight end) and they run play-action pass. Finke in the slot runs a deep drag across the field, with Claypool the single receiver on the left running a post. (If this play looks familiar to you, this is the exact play Book hit Boykin with on the game-winning touchdown against Pitt last season.) Claypool has his man beaten on the post and Ian has time to make a perfect rhythm throw over the top for a touchdown. He opts instead to hit Finke across the field for a big gain, so not much to criticize something like that. But, touchdowns are always best in any situation, and on first and ten it’s worth taking a shot. When you score a touchdown, you’re all done playing football, and therefore no more plays are needed on that drive.
A similar situation happens later in the game, just before Notre Dame misses a 47-yard field goal. The Irish are again in 31 personnel, and they again run play-action, though a little bit more elaborate, with Claypool running a post and Finke running a deep crosser. Claypool again gets a step on his defender and more importantly gains the inside, giving Book plenty of room to lead him. The middle safety stops his feet and picks up Finke, leaving the middle of the field wide open. This time though, the underneath safety works underneath of Finke, making this throw all the more difficult to fit in. Book still opts to try Finke, can’t fit it in, and the chance for a touchdown to their best receiver goes by untried.
In the last in the series of finding Claypool, it comes in the third quarter on a third and five near midfield. They are again in 31 personnel with trips to the far side, with Finke in the slot and Claypool immediately inside of him. Virginia brings a blitz and is playing man coverage. Notre Dame slides the protection to that side, and it is picked up perfectly by Tony Jones Jr. Wide receivers Michael Young and Chris Finke run two short whip routes–they break inside, then plant the foot and head back out–with Chase Claypool running a corner route. Claypool has his man playing inside leverage, so before the ball is snapped, Claypool already has a huge advantage. This route is going to be open for a big gain.
Ian instead chooses Finke, who in fairness is open, but he runs his route short of the line to gain, and Notre Dame is forced to punt. This is one of those plays, like the one above, where Ian has a significant gain available to him yet opts to throw short.
There Is Hope
To not give the impression that Ian only ever takes the safe route, here is a play where he absolutely does not, and it pays off for him.
On this play in the second quarter, it’s second and 15 and Notre Dame is once again in 31 personnel, with three receivers to the field and Cole Kmet attached to the line at the boundary. Kmet runs what looks to be a skinny corner route with Chris Finke running a shallow crosser right in front of him. Kmet has the linebacker chasing him with a safety inside; it’d be very reasonable for Ian to see this and believe him to be covered, and Finke crossing right in front is very much uncovered. Ian opts for Kmet though, who goes over the top of two players and makes the grab for a substantial gain.
There are two reasons teams aren’t explosive. One is, they don’t have explosive players/don’t have explosive opportunities. The other is, that team isn’t capitalizing on the opportunities that present themselves. Based on what we’ve seen in the first four weeks, it is very much the latter for Notre Dame. This is obviously the most correctable of the two situations, and once Book gets more comfortable with where to go with the ball, we could see the offense take off in a big way.