Brian Kelly was noncommittal about the quarterback position at Notre Dame heading into next season on Monday after the Irish called in Ian Book in relief of Brandon Wimbush, but he didn’t have say anything. As soon as Ian Book rallied Notre Dame for two fourth quarter touchdowns to knock off LSU and win Notre Dame’s first New Year’s Day bowl since 1994, everyone knew what was coming. Another quarterback competition at Notre Dame.
“I don’t think I am ready to get into all of those things. We just won a football game and we’ll make all of those decisions later,” Brian Kelly said Monday afternoon after Notre Dame’s 21-17 win.
He might not have been ready to get into all of those things on Monday, but his response let every know exactly what was coming. A quarterback competition for the fourth time in five years at Notre Dame.
The reason for what would have been an unthinkable quarterback competition two months ago is both the rise of Ian Book and the simultaneous fall of Brandon Wimbush. The hope heading into the Citrus Bowl was that a month of extra practice would get Brandon Wimbush back on track and looking like a quarterback on the cusp of stardom. Not the quarterback that we all saw in November that looked lost after starting all but one game this fall.
That didn’t happen. After hitting Equanimeous St. Brown for a 35 yarder on the first play of the game, Wimbush struggled to find his receivers and missed them when he did. The quarterback we saw struggling against Miami and Stanford was the same quarterback that we saw struggling again.
Enter Ian Book. The sophomore quarterback stepped in off the bench and directed a two minute drive that gave Notre Dame signs of life and its first points to end the first half. Book didn’t go back to the bench the rest of the afternoon and the only drive he directed in the second half that didn’t end in points for Notre Dame was his third quarter interception that reminded us all why he was the backup in the first place.
Book shook off that interception, however, and started making the kind of throws we haven’t seen out of the quarterback position much this year. He was looking off defenders and placing balls in right windows. “He’s extremely accurate as a passer,” Kelly said post game. “He’s got a really fine ability to locate the football. He throws strikes and that’s the strength that he has.” The best example of this wasn’t his game winner to Miles Boykin either. It was a 3rd and 17 conversion to Boykin that set up his first touchdown of the game. Book threaded a ball in between two LSU defenders that hit Boykin perfectly in stride.
What might have been most surprising though was Book’s running ability. LSU didn’t respect Book in the zone-read game. That was a mistake. “If you do not play him in the option game, he is extremely capable of pulling it and being effective in the run game,” said Kelly. On designed runs, Book picked up 61 yards on seven attempts including a shocking 3rd and 19 conversion on the final drive of the first half. (Note: his final yardage reflects 28 lost yards due to sacks).
Most importantly though, we saw Book lead a game winning drive. It has been a long time since we saw a Notre Dame quarterback get the ball with two minutes to go and lead a game winning drive. Deshone Kizer couldn’t do it last year against Michigan State, Duke, Stanford, or Virginia Tech. Wimbsh couldn’t do it this year against Georgia. Book delivered against LSU though. “We have great confidence in Ian,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football, but we threw him right into the fire and he leads a winning drive in a game that was on the line. He’s got that ability and it doesn’t surprise us that he’s able to do that.”
And here we are. Heading into another intriguing off-season wondering what will happen at the quarterback position for the Fighting Irish. “We’re very talented at the quarterback position,” said Kelly. “Ian showed today. Brandon showed that he is very capable of running. He had 30 touchdowns this year. 30 touchdowns. So we’re very deep at the quarterback position and very fortunate that we have them. ”
What’s that age old saying though? If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have a quarterback?
Let’s not forget those 30 touchdowns from Wimbush or all the good he did in the first two months of the season. Obviously his junior year did not end how anyone had hoped for but he is still a young man with two years of eligibility and a world of raw talent. After the last five games though, it’s fair to question whether or not that raw talent will be able to be molded into a quarterback that can lead Notre Dame to the playoffs.
It’s also fair to wonder if Book is that quarterback too. Before Monday, we had seen Book turn the ball over much more frequently than you want. His pick six against Miami came at a time when it finally looked like Notre Dame had a chance to move the ball. On Monday his second drive ended up another of those interceptions that had you scratching your head. Were those the signs of inexperience or a sign of things to come if he is given the keys to the offense full? We just don’t know.
Maybe they both have that ability. Maybe neither do. We really don’t know right now. All we know is that the starting quarterback position at Notre Dame is still unsettled just as its been for the vast majority of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
Last off-season Kelly gave the entire program an overhaul and pulled a lot of the right cords in the process. His off-season to do list this year is much shorter, but right at the top of that list has to be fixing the quarterback position and heading into the 2018 with some clear direction. No more dual quarterback systems, no more letting the competition linger into the season. Kelly needs to figure out who his quarterback is, and then he and Chip Long need to mold the offense to the strengths of whoever that is whether it’s Book, Wimbush, Avery Davis, or incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec.
Kelly couldn’t answer questions on who his starting quarterback is moving forward on Monday because he doesn’t know. For Notre Dame to build on the momentum of a 10 win season and bowl victory, he’s going to have to find out regardless of whether or not he’s ready to get into all of that just yet. If he doesn’t, we will be in the exact same position next year.