ND FOOTBALL POSITION BREAKDOWNS: QB Book the starter, but questions remain behind him

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book smiles after scoring the game-winning touchdown with 29 seconds left in the Fighting Irish’s 21-20 victory over Virginia Tech on Nov. 2, 2019, in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — The cancellation of sports during the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way college football teams prepare for the upcoming season. Instead of having organized spring practices and workouts, players are left to work out at home with whatever resources they have.

Along with that, coaches are left wondering what type of talent they actually have on their roster. Spring practices allow coaches to assess who’s making progress, who could be a starter come fall camp and who’ll potentially be making plays come Saturday. Without spring practices, though, teams will be left with a lot of guessing until when — or if — fall camp opens.

In the case of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish only had one organized practice before everything was canceled. So, where do these cancellations leave coach Brian Kelly’s squad? Let’s take a look at each position and see how the Irish fare heading into summer without spring practices.

Up first: quarterbacks.

THE STAR

There’s no doubt entering the 2020 season who QB1 is on the Notre Dame depth chart. Graduate senior Ian Book is back for a fifth year in South Bend, looking to lead his team to the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons.

Book broke on to the scene at the end of the 2017 season, specifically in that season’s Citrus Bowl win over LSU. Book came in for then-starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, going 14-of-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning TD pass to wide receiver Miles Boykin with 1:28 left.

Despite the Citrus Bowl success, Book started the 2018 campaign as the backup to Wimbush. After back-to-back rough starts against Ball State and Vanderbilt, though, Wimbush was permanently benched in favor of Book. From there, Book took the Irish to the next level, going 8-0 as a starter en route to a 12-0 season and CFP berth. He finished the season with 2,629 yards passing, 19 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 68.2.

After a successful 2018 season, Book struggled at times in 2019. He put up big numbers in wins over New Mexico State and Bowling Green but struggled against Louisville, Virginia and Southern Cal. His struggles culminated with a disastrous performance on the road against Michigan, going 8-of-25 for 73 yards and a touchdown. Mumblings over whether Book was “the guy” started circulating around the Notre Dame program following the loss.

Book silenced those critics in the final six games, though. He led a game-winning touchdown drive against Virginia Tech the following week, then torched Duke, Navy, Boston College, Stanford and Iowa State (in the Camping World Bowl) the rest of the way. Overall, he finished 2019 with 3,034 yards passing, 34 touchdowns and a 60.8 completion percentage. He also rushed for 546 yards and four touchdowns.

His late-season success has many hopeful Book can put together a Heisman-like season for the Irish in 2020. He’s currently listed at 30-1 odds to win the trophy, 11th best in the country. For Kelly, though, Book’s leadership will be just as important as his play on the field.

“I think his presence itself has been great,” said Kelly in March. “He’s thoughtful. Look, I mean, what’s great leadership, right? To me, when you battle through adversity — after the Michigan game, for him to lead our football team to six consecutive wins, that’s pretty good. That shows some resilience and leadership, and all those guys know that. So they want to follow a guy like that just because of his actions from last year. So he’s got a ton of credibility and a lot of the respect from his peers.”

WHO’S LEFT?

Book’s backup last year, redshirt freshman Phil Jurkovec, transferred to Boston College in the offseason, leaving the backup quarterback position wide open on the Notre Dame depth chart.

In the one practice the team had in March, redshirt freshman Brendon Clark and true freshman Drew Pyne were getting the most reps at backup QB. Clark is a 6-foot-1, 212-pound QB from Virginia, while Pyne is a 5-11, 194-pound prospect from Connecticut.

Clark has thrown one career pass, completing it for a 22-yard touchdown late in the Irish’s 66-14 victory over New Mexico State last season. He also rushed for 33 yards on five carries in his two appearances in 2019.

Pyne was a four-star recruit who threw for 9,411 yards and 105 touchdowns at New Canaan High School. Pyne could easily be listed as QB2 behind Book once fall camp starts.

The only other quarterbacks on the roster are redshirt junior J.D. Carney (5-10, 177) and redshirt sophomore Cole Capen (6-4, 227).

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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